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The Real News About the Redesigned SAT

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Ever since College Board President David Coleman announced that the redesigned SAT would replace its testing of more obscure words such as mendacious or treacly with the analysis of more frequent, multiple-meaning words in context, educators have been fretting about what this may mean for the study of vocabulary and for the precision of the next generation of American students' English in general.

Writer after writer has come to the defense of "obscure" words. As Andy Smarick wrote in "The invaluableness of 'obscure' words and the SAT," "ostensibly 'obscure' words give us powers of description that can inform our surroundings, and they can bring clarity and insight to our understanding or the world. Please protect such words."

Now that the College Board has released actual sample items for the redesigned SAT, word huggers like Smarick should fret no more. True, the questions on the new SAT that aim to directly assess vocabulary comprehension target more common, context-dependent words like intense, but what about the vocabulary knowledge required to comprehend some of the more difficult reading passages?

We learned today that the text complexity of the Reading Test passages on the Redesigned SAT will range from a 9th-10th grade level to a postsecondary level. If that's too abstract of a classification to digest, here is an introductory paragraph of a postsecondary level sample passage released by the College Board (adapted from a speech delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas on July 25, 1974):

Today, I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.

If the words inquisitor, hyperbole, solemnness, idle, spectator, diminution, and subversion are not in your vocabulary arsenal, how prepared are you as a high school junior or senior going to battle against this paragraph on the SAT? Regardless of the readability formula you use to measure the text complexity of a reading passage, vocabulary difficulty (defined by either frequency or length) is factored in to that equation. In fact, literacy expert Michael Graves suggests that "vocabulary is far and away the most significant factor in determining text complexity."

For students to do well on the redesigned SAT, they should be reading complex texts, learning the vocabulary from those texts, and analyzing the nuanced ways writers have used those words. When my fifth-grade daughter recently came home with both a Wordly Wise workbook and the Gettysburg Address in her homework folder, I asked her, "Do you know what 'hallowed ground' means? What about 'to die in vain'?" She stared at me blankly. Wouldn't it have been a better use of her time to learn this Vocabulary.com word list on The Gettysburg Address than to complete two pages of vocabulary work that was divorced from the social studies text she was expected to read that evening?

With Vocabulary.com's tool for customized list-making, it's easy to turn any text like the Gettysburg Address or Barbara Jordan's speech into a learnable vocabulary list. When a student has mastered the words on the list, that's an important step on the path to overall comprehension. Equipped with high-level word knowledge, students will be ready to take on the type of challenging reading passages featured in the new SAT.

The College Board is not dumbing down the test; on the contrary, it's giving test takers a taste of the types of texts they will be challenged to read in college. The real news today is not what The New York Times headline "Revised SAT Won't Include Obscure Vocabulary Words" implies. To me, the news lies in how this will transform what it means "to study for the SAT."

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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.