SAT Sample Reading-Test Questions: Science Passage

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

When you’re attacking a science passage in the SAT, it offers information gained from experiments, surveys, or observation (or a combination of all three). Although you won’t need to know any math or technical terms, you should know general science vocabulary. You should also pay attention to the details in the text (and figure if one is included).

Sample Questions

Questions 1–5 refer to the following passage and figure (excerpted and adapted from The Story of Eclipses, by George F. Chambers [London: George Newnes, Ltd.]).

Sample Passage

The primary meaning of the word “eclipse” is a disappearance, the covering over of something by something else. This apparently crude definition will be found, on investigation, to represent precisely the facts of the case.

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As the Earth and the Moon are solid bodies, each must cast a shadow into space as the result of being illuminated by the Sun, a source of light. The various bodies which together make up the Solar System, the planets and their moons, are constantly in motion. Consequently, if we imagine a line to be drawn between any two bodies at any given time, such a line will point in a different direction at another time, and so it may occasionally happen that three of these ever‐moving bodies will sometimes come into one and the same straight line. When one of the extremes of the series of three bodies in a common direction is the Sun, the intermediate body deprives the other extreme body, either wholly or partially, of illumination. When one of the extremes is the Earth, the intermediate body intercepts, wholly or partially, the other extreme body from the view of observers situated at places on the Earth which are in the common line of direction, and the intermediate body is seen to pass over the other extreme body as it enters upon or leaves the common line of direction. The phenomena resulting from such contingencies of position and direction are variously called eclipses, transits, and occultations, according to the relative apparent magnitudes of the interposing and obscured bodies, and according to the circumstances that attend them.

The Earth moves round the Sun once in every year; the Moon moves round the Earth once in every lunar month (27 days). The Earth moves round the Sun in a certain plane, an imaginary surface on which a line drawn between any two points lies flat. If the Moon as the Earth’s companion moved round the Earth in the same plane, an eclipse of the Sun would happen regularly every month when the Moon was in “conjunction,” the “New Moon,” during which the Moon is not visible in the sky, and also every month at the intermediate period there would be a total eclipse of the Moon on the occasion of every “opposition,” or “Full Moon,” when the Moon appears as a complete circle. But because the Moon’s orbit does not lie in quite the same plane as the Earth’s, but is inclined at an angle averaging about 5-1/8 degrees, the actual facts are different. Instead of there being in every year about 25 eclipses (of the sun and of the moon in nearly equal numbers), which there would be if the orbits had identical planes, there are only a very few eclipses in the year. Never, under the most favorable circumstances, are there more than seven, and sometimes as few as two.

Eclipses of the Sun are more numerous than those of the Moon in the proportion of about three to two, yet at any given place on the Earth more lunar eclipses are visible than solar eclipses, because eclipses of the Moon, when they occur, are visible over the whole hemisphere, or half, of the Earth that is turned towards the Moon. The area over which a total eclipse of the Sun is visible is just a belt of the Earth no more than about 150 to 170 miles wide.

  1. In the context of the first sentence, the best meaning of “primary” is

    (A) earliest

    (B) most primitive

    (C) most direct

    (D) most basic

  2. According to the explanation in this passage, which of the following could be considered “an eclipse”?

    (A) mixing cream into a cup of coffee

    (B) an apple sitting in front of a grape

    (C) two stars shining brightly in the sky

    (D) Mars and Venus

  3. What is the best evidence for the answer to Question 2?

    (A) Sentence 1 (“disappearance . . . else”)

    (B) Paragraph 2, sentence 2 (“various bodies . . . motion”)

    (C) Paragraph 2, last sentence (“The phenomena resulting . . . attend them.”)

    (D) Paragraph 3, sentence 4 (“the Moon’s orbit . . . different”)

  4. The most common stylistic devices in this passage are

    (A) definition and example

    (B) narration and characterization

    (C) description and figurative language

    (D) analogies and implied comparison

  5. In the context of paragraph 2, sentence 5, what is the best definition of “extreme”?

    (A) exaggerated

    (B) highest degree

    (C) outer

    (D) most advanced

Answers and Explanations

  1. D.

    Many answer choices here, in typical SAT fashion, are definitions of primary. In the context of the first sentence, however, only Choice (D) makes sense. Boil everything down to the essentials, and an eclipse occurs when something disappears.

  2. B.

    The passage explains that if one thing is “covering over . . . something else” (paragraph 1, sentence 1), you have an eclipse, as the “something else” disappears. If you place an apple in front of a grape, you can’t see the grape from the front. The grape is eclipsed. Choice (B) fits the definition and is the correct answer.

  3. A.

    The definition of an eclipse is “a disappearance, the covering over of something by something else” (paragraph 1, sentence 1). The apple “covers” the grape and makes it disappear from view, so this sentence supports the answer to Question 2.

  4. A.

    The passage begins with a definition of eclipse and moves on to the examples of eclipses of the sun and moon. You also see the definition of plane in paragraph 3, sentence 3, not to mention definitions of new and full moons. Choice (A) is a clear winner here!

  5. C.

    Paragraph 2, sentence 3 asks the reader to imagine the Sun, Moon, and Earth arranged in a line. One of these is in the middle, and each of the other two is an “extreme” — the outer body. The diagram may help you with this one; it illustrates the position of the three bodies during an eclipse.