27 December 2015

Is “jettison” a fancy word? (yet another journalist uses an “SAT word” to insult “SAT words”)

In a Washington Post article describing the College Board’s attempt to capture market share back from the ACT, Nick Anderson writes: 

Wider access to markets where the SAT now has a minimal presence would heighten the impact of the revisions to the test that aim to make it more accessible. The new version [of the SAT], debuting on March 5, will eliminate penalties for guessing, make its essay component optional and jettison much of the fancy vocabulary, known as “SAT words,” that led generations of students to prepare for test day with piles of flash cards.

Nick Anderson might be surprised to discover that “jettison” is precisely the sort of “fancy” word that the SAT tests.

But then again, that would require him to do research, and no education journalist would bother to do any of that when it comes to the SAT. Because, like, everyone just knows that the SAT only tests words that no one actually uses. 

That reminds me of a discussion I had a couple of days ago with a teacher friend who was complaining that her students clung too rigidly to one side of an argument, that they had trouble understanding nuances. 

“V.,” I said. “Your students probably don’t even know what nuance is. The concept is foreign to them. It’s a word they see on a flash card when they’re studying for the SAT and forget five seconds later.” 

The people with us, both highly educated adults (and one the parent of a high school student), laughed. It had never occurred to either of them that “nuance” could be considered a difficult word.

I was therefore obliged to give them my standard spiel about how many words that 16 year-old who never pick up a book would consider obscure, would actually be considered perfectly common by educated 50 year-olds. But since those 50 year-olds can only remember the SAT from the perspective of a high school student, they remain convinced that the words it tests are actually obscure. 

They continued to laugh, but uncomfortably. I think they were both a little horrified. 

So sorry Nick. Next time you write about the SAT, you might want to actually look at some tests and see what kind of vocabulary gets tested there. Either that, or you should make sure to avoid words like “jettison” and “stagnated” (which I happened to notice you used later in the article).

Or maybe you should just make some flash cards for your readers. 

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