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SAT Reading Scores Keep Declining: What Should Teachers Do?

Last week, the College Board reported that SAT reading scores have reached an all-time low. The Class of 2011's SAT reading scores dipped another three points from the previous year (down to 497), and that makes it a whopping 33-point drop since 1972.

The bleak news out of the College Board should leave teachers and administrators taking a hard look at how we are preparing students (or not) for the skills that are tested on the reading section of the SAT and on most standardized ELA exams. Since math scores have been holding steady (only down 1 point since last year and up five points since '72), we can't point to an across-the-board failure of America's schools. This is a reading problem.

Most educators are speculating that this decline in reading scores can be attributed to the increasing diversity of today's SAT test takers – many of whom are not native English speakers. If this is true, one way to help our second language learners is through vocabulary remediation: not by cranking up the rote memorization of words but by spending more class time modeling the type of critical word analysis that is required on the SAT and on other standardized reading tests.

For those of you who haven't really looked at an SAT since you were filling in its bubbles with your own number two pencil, let's look at what types of SAT vocabulary questions could trip up English language learners and how we can better prepare our students in their daily reading assignments to answer such questions.

In 2005 the College Board cut word analogy questions in an attempt to rid the test of de-contextualized vocabulary questions. In other words, many educators felt it was inappropriate to test students on word puzzles that were testing a student's skill at analyzing the relationships between words out of the context of reading. As a result, now all SAT vocabulary questions are either sentence completions (fill in the blank sentences) or vocabulary questions that relate to the SAT's longer reading passages.

For example, the following is a question taken from a sample passage-based reading section on the College Board site (excerpted from a longer passage on the quest for finding extraterrestrial life).

57 If one discounts the UFO claims, yet still believes that there are many technological civilizations in the galaxy, why have they not visited us?

22.  In line 57, "claims" most nearly means
(A) demands
(B) assertions
(C) rights
(D) territories
(E) compensations

What this SAT question requires is an analysis of how the word claims is being used in this particular sentence. Unfortunately, a student who has received vocabulary instruction consisting of memorizing words and their predominant definitions might see the word claims in the question and anxiously scan the answers for the definition of claims that seems most familiar — instead of returning to the passage and analyzing which definition fits the particular context of the sentence.

If you explore at a Visual Thesaurus word map of the noun meanings of claim, you can see that the SAT is offering several valid meanings for claims in its answer choices and the student must pick the relevant one ("an assertion that something is true or factual"). So, even though answer choices A, B, and C may present valid synonyms for claims, the student must be able to discriminate among these multiple definitions to choose the right one for the context of the reading passage.

What are we doing in our classrooms to model this type of thinking? Are we handing out word lists and mechanically quizzing our students on memorized definitions or are we spending time on critically analyzing the multiple meanings of words and requiring our students to choose the meanings most relevant to their reading?

The standardized test required for Texas students to graduate high school (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS) makes this same task more transparent to its students by explicitly stating that students are looking at multiple definitions of a word and choosing the one that fits.

Take a look at the following example – from the 2010 TAKS Exit Level ELA exam (excerpted from a longer passage):

I didn't have any lines to memorize, but I never missed a single rehearsal. I could have been excused every evening after I slumped forward dead over the desk, but I insisted on staying so I could get used to remaining in a still position for the forty minutes of the first act. I liked everybody in the cast and all of the backstage helpers. They were all younger than I was, but they treated me like one of the group. A man appreciates things like that. When it was my turn to make coffee or hustle down to Donutland for donuts they didn't skip me just because I was older than they were. And on the Sunday before the opening I was asked to come down and help paint flats and I did that too.

1.      Read the following dictionary entry.      
flat \ flat\ n 1. a level piece of land 2. a shallow box for planting seeds 3. an apartment located on one floor 4. a piece of theatrical scenery      

Which definition matches how the word "flats" is used in paragraph 16?
A Definition 1
B Definition  2
C Definition 3
D Definition 4

Most students are familiar with the adjective meaning of flat, but this question refers to its noun meanings. An exploration of the Visual Thesaurus word map for the noun meanings of flat can lead students to the correct meaning (i.e., Definition 4).

Having students explore the different meaning branches of a VT word map trains them to acknowledge the multiple meanings of a word and forces them to try to identify a meaning that fits a particular context. It's not enough to find the first or shortest definition of a dictionary entry; students need to find the right definition.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 21st 2011, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
"Most educators are speculating", this is all too often the response, that is, speculating then charging off to fix something without the most fundamental use of data to assist. Notice I say 'asist" not "driven". And then the stale "memorizing" versus "critical thinking" root cause and solution as if memory does not come into play.
As educators, we like the term 'critical thinking" because it seems immeasurable and we can do the old softshoe without the aid of sawdust on the floor. Take the easy way and hide behind intangible figurative language. If that is our objective and what we want our kids to learn, then I guess we are succeeding.
Thursday September 22nd 2011, 12:18 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
SAT verbal scores are going down, but it seems like the way in which the SAT gauges verbal skills has also changed. I actually like the newer test questions illustrated here, which do seem to designed to test whether a student understands a word in context. However, it seems at least possible (don't know how plausible) that the old verbal questions -- including the decontextualized analogies that were practically a defining feature of (haha) old-school SATs -- were actually easier to study for. For example, when I was in high school, I took a class called "Vocabulary for the College-Bound Student," which was, in effect, a class in rote learning of new vocabulary. (Basically, tho it was probably not described as such, it was a prep class for the SAT.)

Point being, maybe the fact that scores have gone down is not _just_ the result of lower reading comprehension; maybe it's that improved testing is uncovering gaps in verbal skills that were there all along but that the test wasn't testing very well, and that were masked by students' abilities to do rote learning to prep for the old test.

Any opinions about this?

PS I'm guessing that many people would make claims (definition B) that the Internet is, you know, ruining the youth of today and is the culprit for lower SAT scores. (In my day, TV was the responsible party, aided by pop music.) I'd be skeptical of such claims, for what it's worth.
Sunday October 2nd 2011, 12:00 PM
Comment by: alejandra C. (Merida Mexico)
I have been teaching(or at least trying to teach) reading comprehension in English to students of engineering and management. I have added the same kind of questions you are giving as examples in their quizzes. I believe it is of utmost importance to be able to understand the accurate meaning of each word from the texts. For learners of English as a second language, it`s crucial to be able to understand the precise meaning of words. My students have to translate instructions, handbooks, case studies, etc. for the adequate development of their work. So as you can see, there is no confusion allowed.

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