College Board revamps the SAT: Seeking synthesis

Fancy vocabulary words don’t necessarily prepare a student for college — especially if they’re drummed into his or her head as part of an SAT prep class. Finally, the makers of the college admissions exam got that message. The news this week that The College Board is revamping the test to move away from obscure vocabulary words was a step toward fairness for students who may not have parents with vast vocabularies (or any ability to speak English) or the resources to hire the best tutors.

College Board president David Coleman said the new SAT would focus on skills that students will actually use in college. At the announcement in Austin, Coleman held up “synthesis” as an example of the sort of word test takers can expect on the new exam, slated to be introduced in 2016. Knowing what synthesis means is important for biology as well as English, and so a test of that word could serve as a better indicator of a student’s preparedness for college than, say, “mendacious” or “ingenue,” both of which have appeared on recent tests.

The move should help to reduce the disturbing correlation between a student’s SAT score and his or her socioeconomic background. The College Board’s push to offer free test prep through the nonprofit education group the Khan Academy should be another equalizing factor.


Some admissions officers complained that another change — making the essay section optional — diminishes the importance of critical thinking and clear expression. They’re certainly right that in the age of text messaging and 140-character tweets students need an incentive to learn how to build a cohesive argument. But colleges and universities can, on their own, require that all applicants take the essay portion of the SAT. Besides, an optional essay would give ambitious students a chance to separate themselves from the crowd, regardless of which tax bracket their parents are in.