The Untimely Death of SAT Words


Well folks, it’s time we bid adieu to some true characters of the English language.
Foible, Prevaricate, Scrupulous, Nefarious.

These are just a few words that will be dying with more than a bit of agony and very little ceremony it seems. English will never be the same. But these words have been deemed impractical by the powers that be and our students will no longer be troubled by exposure to these entities of more archaic and colorful communication.

These words will be taken out back and shot like Old Yeller. And not very many people will be shedding tears. A few people brought flowers as a gesture of remembrance. But pretty soon, this will all fade into the past. Communication will be reduced and the English language will lose much of its luster. But we will all soon be describing ourselves and our feelings with the same 10 words—which will be boring but at least everyone will be on the same page and no one has to wonder what the word means, right?

WRONG.

Of all the things to make it into the news lately, the SAT changes caught my attention this week. And not in a good way. If you haven’t heard, in 2016, the SAT will be doctored significantly. Check out this brief article from TIME for an overview. Changes include: a calculator free portion of the test, students will no longer be penalized for wrong answers, and the essay portion is made optional. These are all fine by me. But, most significantly, they will be testing “more practical vocabulary” and ending the era of what is known as “SAT words.” SAT words are words that are ultimately affiliated with the renowned college entrance exam despite the fact that they existed in the language years before the conception of the SAT. These words are now deemed impractical due to their lack of use and thus the lack of exposure that students are likely to get to these words in the real world.

The fact that these words are simply known as “SAT words” is the sign of the initial problem. The American media (television, digital and print) reports utilizing a ridiculously low 7th grade level according to a friend who was a J School grad. Our society operates at a low reading level which doesn’t use certain aspects of our language for fear of alienating someone. While I understand that not everyone has had the benefit of being able to read at or beyond a high school level, the decision to delete these words from the SAT and thus leave the high school student unexposed has consequences that go beyond the SAT itself. We are encouraging and now witnessing the devaluing of the English language.

Perhaps the above statement is a bit dramatic. But, I’m sorry…well not really. Since when has vocabulary been deemed impractical? Is it because of the phenomenon known as texting? Is it because of email? The Internet and other technological advances have increased our exposure to all sorts of stimuli, so why can’t vocabulary be one of these? These words are a part of our language. They are available to us and they are important because they allow a person to express themselves. Having a bevy of words at your disposal is to your advantage and further emphasis of their impracticality is to society’s detriment and not to its benefit. A wide vocabulary allows a person to “cut fine distinctions in our thinking about the world” (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-case-for-sat-words/282253/). Talking, communication and expressing ourselves is something that marks us as human. Beyond these basic abilities, one of the keys to becoming a good writer is varying your sentence structures and your word choices because pieces written in a repetitive cadence bore your reader. I know that the world is honing in more and more every day on brief correspondence and that the lengthy novel and other forms of expression are waning in popularity. But the written word, no matter if it’s typed or handwritten, remains in a position of paramount importance.

The most consistent example of words offered by the media as being one of those impractical “SAT words” is the word prevarication. This word is a fantastic way to express the humdrum word: lie. Part of me wants to snidely inquire, is this word deemed inappropriate because of the number of syllables and society’s tendency and inexplicable need to express everything as tersely as possible? Perhaps prevaricate is not a word that comes up in everyday speech, but it’s not such a hard word and it has its uses. It’s great for building tension. It’s impressive because it doesn’t necessarily mean what it looks like it would mean. And it’s a word that remains a part of my vocabulary today, 13 years after taking the SAT.

I suppose my biggest concern with the reduction in expectations in the vocabulary of our students is that it will ultimately lead to an even further dumbing down of the written word in modern publications and in the usage of the general population. In result, language will suffer. Yes, these words are tough. But they are beautiful and they provide a richness to our language. And just because we don’t teach them doesn’t mean that they no longer exist. They’re in the dictionary. They matter. And we will continue to allow our students to progress in vocabulary ignorance if we deny them exposure.

I suspect that the primary issue of vocabulary words has more to do with socioeconomic status of students rather than the impracticality of these words. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important that all students, no matter what environment they grew up in and what type of school they went to deserve to have the opportunity to attend college if that is what they so desire. But making things easier for students isn’t the way we are going to fix all of the problems with our education system.

I’m not a teacher; nor am I a parent. Thus, in no way can comment with much intelligence on the subject of the education system. My perspective is simply a person who is a lover of language and a believer in the importance of literacy and having the vocabulary to express yourself appropriately.

In all likelihood, the world will disagree with what I say in this post and the changes to our language and communication will inevitably continue to occur. I will be left with a pile of words that are seen as practical and reflect our practical, scientifically driven society. If I vary too far outside the lines and resurrect those “dead” words (and I frequently do so in conversation), my words will fall on deaf ears for, it’s not as if anyone will understand what I’m saying anyway.

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5 thoughts on “The Untimely Death of SAT Words

  1. The essay portion should NOT be optional. I teach college and university. It should be MANDATORY and graded SCRUPULOUSLY. Got in a tussle yesterday with a student who was writing a response to an angry customer. He wrote that he hoped refunding her money would “sooth her discomfort.” He really could NOT understand the difference between this woman’s justified outrage and indigestion. He did not “like” that I tried to help him express himself in a way that would convey his meaning in a, er, more meaningful way to his audience. He got angry at me for attempting to help him. It’s OK; Fahrenheit 451 is coming true and it seems it’s going to “manifest” with nary an objection.

    1. I suppose my lack of concern about the essay portion is the fact that when I took the SAT, it was not part of the exam. That came about after my high school years. But I can definitely see your perspective. Thanks!

  2. Reblogged this on I'm a Writer, Yes I Am and commented:
    This hits the nail of my life on the head. If we expect less, demand less, teach less, we will BE less. What scares me is that seems to be generally all right with everyone.

    1. Thanks for reblogging this. I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

      I’d only add that many high school English teachers are not sufficiently literate to teach the subject effectively. You can’t test kids on vocabulary that their teachers don’t even possess. Needless to say, the kids are being cheated before they ever reach the SAT.

      Meanwhile, “highly qualified status” is determined by credit hours, not competence.

  3. Well said! It’s unfortunate that the SAT Board finds these words to be superfluous. I, too, fear mediocrity in our future. Thanks for sharing.

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