“Just SAT words”

This New York Times article gives an informative preview of the changes looming for the SAT and the ACT.  

It has a lot of interesting tidbits, but I want to spend a little time nitpicking. First of all, the current College Board president, David Coleman, says that he wants to cleanse the test of words that are “just SAT words” like “pugnacious,” “depreciatory,” “redolent,” “treacly” and “jettison” while including words that are more relevant, like “distill” and “transform.” 

This seems like code for “make the test easier.” There’s nothing particularly arcane about the words the article cites as “just SAT words”: you see them all the time in college-level texts, especially but not only in the humanities. (Yes, the humanities are declining, but they still constitute a large percentage of undergraduate study, and comprehension of difficult texts is a skill applicable across the academic spectrum.) 

But the fault may lie with the journalist, not the interviewee. Why? Well, later in the piece, we see this little morsel:

Competition between the two tests has not let up: for the first time last year, the ACT surpassed the SAT in market share. With the new redesign, the SAT seems likely to inch even closer in content to the ACT, which focuses more on grammar, usage and mechanics than on vocabulary.

 

The writer is comparing apples to, at the very least, oranges here. The SAT critical reading section, which tests a student’s vocabulary and reading skills, is not designed to test grammar, mechanics, and usage. However, since 2005 the SAT has had a writing section that tests those aspects of verbal knowledge. 

I wonder if the journalist neglected to mention the writing section of the test out of ignorance, or whether Coleman chose not to mention it because the College Board is considering phasing it out. 

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