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The Podium

College Board’s mixed message on SAT

Suzane Nazir uses an SAT preparation book to study for the test in Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Suzane Nazir uses an SAT preparation book to study for the test in Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Are you: GREGARIOUS? Do you: know what that means? So inquired a poster hanging on a wall at my high school, a reminder that we should be studying our SAT vocabulary flashcards. Flashcards may be a thing of the past, however, now that the College Board has announced big changes to the SAT.

No standardized test will ever be perfect, or even close, but the new vocabulary and optional essay sections unveiled this week are a step in the wrong direction. Taken together, they undermine emphasis on what should be essential (and related) skills of college-ready students: reading comprehension and analytical writing.

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The College Board’s decision to eliminate words that “while interesting and useful in specific instances, often lack broad utility in varied disciplines and contexts,” in favor of words that are “broadly used” sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Words lack broad utility when they aren’t used frequently. But command of a rich and varied vocabulary makes one both a more confident reader and a more fluid writer. The College Board has not specified which words are on the chopping block to make room for additions like “empirical” and “synthesis,” but the implication that there is a defined set of words used in college is both misplaced and discouraging.

One argument in favor of the vocabulary changes is that they reinforce a focus on aceessible writing instead of encouraging memorization of arcane words. But clarity of expression has never benefited from a narrow vocabulary; indeed, a wide-ranging vocabulary is essential for precise, evocative prose. When students struggle with writing, they often complain that they can’t find the “right” word. A mind full of such words, gathered through, yes, memorization and, in close concert, reading, is an infinite resource.

Those words would come in handy on the new essay portion of the SAT, which will now be focused on analysis of a passage rather than personal reflection. The College Board took one step forward and two steps back here. In the new essay structure, “[s]tudents will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument. They’ll need to support their claims with evidence from the passage.” Fantastic news. Close reading and evidence-based analysis are essential to college work, and a move away from personal reflection will help students focus on how to develop and support an argument. But then the kicker — the essay is now optional. What a terrible mixed message. Offering an optional essay suggests that while the presentation of analysis bolstered by evidence is important, it’s not that important.

Students already know that the current, required essay on the SAT is rarely considered by college admissions committees. Though the College Board suggests that some school districts and colleges may require the new essay, it will take some effort to overcome the presumption that it just doesn’t matter. On bad days, those of us who teach writing at the college or graduate level like to bemoan our students’ lack of writing experience. Hardworking primary and secondary teachers are too easy a target. How can we convince students, parents, and school committees that detailed writing instruction (and the resources such instruction demands) is important when the structure of the SAT suggests that it’s not?

Like it or not (and I don’t), what the College Board does dictates how schools and students will approach college preparation. The College Board should make the essay required and work with admissions committees to make it clear to students that these essays matter for college applications. It should also give more details about the changes to the vocabulary testing and avoid limiting our students’ understanding of the depth and beauty of the English language. College should be both a broad and deep intellectual experience. It’s too bad the primary assessment mechanism for admission is becoming more narrow.

Susannah Barton Tobin is a lecturer on law and directs the First-Year Legal Research and Writing Program at Harvard Law School
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