Education Opinion

Questioning Vocabulary Items on New SAT

By Walt Gardner — April 18, 2014 1 min read
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I have to take my hat off to the College Board for its record of legerdemain. Or is that word not considered “high utility” and, therefore, not likely to be included on the new SAT (“Revised SAT Won’t Include Obscure Vocabulary Words,” The New York Times, Apr. 16)?

The truth is that I don’t understand what the new SAT measures, or for that matter what the old SAT measured. Its designers maintain that obscure words no longer have a place on the test. But what exactly are obscure words? For example, editorials and op-eds in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal routinely contain words that do not appear in The New York Daily News or The New York Post. Are the words used in the first two newspapers considered obscure, esoteric, abstruse or arcane? Or are they necessary to convey nuances of meaning to readers?

I’m not arguing for a test that selects words from lists of vocabulary for specialized professions in order to trip students up. That would be unfair. But restricting the list only to commonly used words does students a disservice if they intend to go to a four-year college. It’s there they will be expected to comprehend vocabulary used by their professors. Their required reading will also include high-octane words they won’t understand. It’s little wonder they become frustrated and often drop out.

I think the real reason for the College Board’s decision is that the SAT is slowly losing ground to the ACT. For the first time in 2012, the ACT pulled ahead when 1,666,017 students took its test, compared with 1,664,479 students for the SAT. In absolute terms, the SAT is still gaining customers, but it’s not doing so as fast as the ACT. To regain its leadership, the College Board hopes that changes in the vocabulary will help do the trick.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.