Sunday, March 9, 2014

The new SAT: Vocabulary

If it has taken a few days for SAT tutors and coaches to respond to Wednesday’s announcements about the redesign of the test it’s because we were super-busy preparing kids for Saturday’s test.  In the brief breather I have before I get slammed with kids trying to prepare for the May test, here are some of my thoughts. 

This will take several posts because a LOT of interesting things were reported.  There are two sets of interesting things:  the changes themselves and people’s comments on the changes.

Actually make that THREE sets of interesting things:  the changes, the comments, and the way the media has reported it all.

Let’s start with the content.  About the adjustments to vocabulary:

Hooray!  I agree that time spent with vocabulary flashcards in order to memorize words such as “phlegmatic” is not time well spent.  However, I do caution you not to assume that this means a child will not need to study vocabulary in preparation for the SAT.  It just means that the vocabulary he or she is learning is more likely to be vocabulary that can actually be put to use in college and beyond.

After several years I have stopped being astonished by the depths of my students’ ignorance when it comes to vocabulary.  It is not necessary to include words like “perspicacious” on a test in order find words with which the average teenager is not familiar.  I know Mr. Coleman promised to only test words that a child learned in school, but he should probably have promised to only test vocabulary that the child ought to have learned in school, and perhaps some that should have been picked up while living life.

There is an exercise I used to do with all of my critical reading students.  (It is from the first edition of The Critical Reader by Erica Meltzer, the current version of which I highly recommend.  There will be a link after this post if you want to order it.)  In the exercise, the student must read a short paragraph, determine the author’s main point, and answer a typical SAT question.  When the student fails to correctly answer the question (which is usually the case), we go back and dissect the paragraph.  There are several words that you must understand in order to understand the passage.  One word is particularly key and it comes in the first sentence.  Only about one in ten of the students (most of whom attend an elite private school) can give me a definition for the word.  Only about three in ten admit to having come across it before.

The word is not “phlegmatic” or “perspicacious”.  It is “partisan.”  In the last decade how many major newspaper issues have been published that did NOT include the word “partisan?”  Knowledge of this word is essential if you plan to take part in political conversation, but our high school students don’t know it.


If it were true that the current SAT only measures whether or not you are good at the SAT (a common claim), then it would follow that getting a better score would be all about memorizing useless vocabulary and learning special tricks that apply only to the test.  However, I assure you that when a student does badly on a critical reading section it turns out, upon questioning him afterward, that he really didn’t understand the article, and often vocabulary is at the root of the problem.



1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! It is amazing and very sad how little vocabulary (like partisan) students know (on more than just a superficial level) and it shows in their scores on critical reading sections of the SAT. It will be interesting to see the new SAT materials when they come out in April.

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