There’s no debate:  “controversy” is a bad choice on the SAT.

“SAT In-Depth ” is an occasional column focused on quantitative analyses of the SAT.  The SAT is, by design, a predictable test.  We’ll be looking for patterns large and small that will help students and educators understand the test better.

CONTROVERSY 

Pity the poor Reading section question writer.  Out of all the work that goes into making a standardized exam, reading comp is the toughest.  The challenge lies in coming up with wrong answers that don’t immediately appear to be wrong and right answers that are also not obviously right.  It is no surprise that question writers sometimes use crutches to help them make an answer wrong.  Throw in the word “always” or “never” and you’re almost certainly going to make a statement too extreme to be true. (See what we did there? With the “almost”?)

“Controversy” and “controversial” are two of these crutch words. They appear among the Reading answer choices in five out of the ten SAT exams released by The College Board. They are wrong every single time.

So what’s the deal with “controversy?” Why has it always been wrong? (Do not confuse it with Prince’s Controversy, which is almost always the right choice.)  The SAT often features Reading passages about a debate on a scientific or political topic. The word “controversy” attracts many students who correctly identify the presence of a debate but are unsure of the difference between a debate and an argument, let alone a controversy.  A controversy is prolonged, public, typically very heated, and often divisive.  A difference of opinion on the functioning of a Venus flytrap does not qualify as a controversy. Students can get fooled by its resemblance to a controversy, but they should be careful of this favorite SAT trick:  taking a true statement from a passage and exaggerating it by several degrees. The passage describes an ill-tempered dog; a wrong answer claims, “All dogs are vicious.”

Does this mean that “controversy” and “controversial” would never be correct?  Not necessarily, but if they were, then the passage would itself use the term or something close to it to describe the situation under discussion.  No one should automatically eliminate “controversy” or “controversial,” should it appear on a test, but everyone should look for tricks like this on SAT questions.

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