There are many, many things I could say about the overhaul of the SAT (coming to a testing center near you in 2016!), but I don’t want this to turn into an endless rant, and so I’ll do my best not to ramble on too long.
The elimination of the sentence completions and the 1/4 point penalty, as well the changes to the essay didn’t surprise me in the least; the combination of Reading and Writing into one section caught me a bit off guard, however. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. If more time is going to be allotted to the essay — the only possibility if you’re giving a more in-depth assignment — it’s going to get cut somewhere else.
Some of the changes I agree with. The essay, for example, desperately needed to be overhauled, and I’m certainly not going to object to any assignment that calls for close reading. On the upside, I might finally write a book about the essay — all those explications de texte put to use. Whoever said a degree in French was useless?
On the elimination of sentence completions: I’m really not sure what to think. On one hand, the possession of a rich vocabulary is unspeakably important (no pun intended). The words that Coleman refers to “obscure” (e.g. punctilious, occlude) are in fact words that appear pretty much every day on the pages of the New York Times or any other serious publication directed at educated adult readers.
They’re also words that students are quite likely to encounter in college, particularly if they take classes in the humanities or ones that require them to read texts written before 1900. Dumbing down the vocabulary is exactly the opposite of what students need to be successful in college. Either Coleman knows this and is choosing to deliberately ignore it, or he actually believes his own spin. I’m not sure which is worse. Somewhere between Oxford and the Common Core, he apparently fell into a McKinsey-induced trance and became incapable of speaking in anything other than empty buzzwords — ones stolen from the ACT, no less.
Regardless, I believe that “cant” (without the apostrophe) is the correct term here.
I’m still vaguely perplexed at how a Rhodes scholar with a degree in Philosophy could possibly embrace such a narrowly utilitarian concept of education. (Who knows what those McKinsey people did to him? All those thousand-dollar dinners…) Unless, of course, he’s just telling people what he thinks they want to hear. The more frightening alternative is that he actually believes what he’s saying.
In any case, he’s decided to play along with the idea that the only way to do well on the sentence completions is to sit and cram thousands of words. While the SAT may include an occasional genuinely obscure word, the point has always been to test the ability to reason with language — given a solid baseline level of vocabulary and a general understanding of how roots work, a person can answer most questions correctly without too much trouble, even without knowing precisely what every word means. The fact that some students attempt to circumvent (er, “get around”) this problem by cramming thousands of words in a desperate attempt to compensate for years of learning does not negate that fact.
I do, however, agree that cramming vocabulary is not a constructive use of students’ time, particularly if they’re just going to forget everything immediately afterwards. Flashcards are not in fact a substitute for actual reading, and given that a test can always include words not on any official list, they are of limited value. (True confession: I’ve never been able to stand flashcards.) Sure, there are always a few outliers for whom studying SAT vocabulary sparks an enduring interest with words and roots and etymologies and ideas. But they are few and far between, and the College Board has decided that their existence is outweighed by more pragmatic (make that “practical”) concerns.
On the other hand, though, plenty of words that used to get tested in sentence completions will still show up in reading passages, and undoubtedly questions will be constructed in such a way that students have to know what those words mean in order to answer certain questions. Comprehension is a direct result of vocabulary knowledge; eliminating sentence completions won’t change that. Assuming that the level of passage difficulty remains stable (and I’m not sure how it couldn’t, given the need to ensure validity), my guess is that the primary change will be a reduced incentive to cram.
But in making such a fuss over the elimination of (not really) “obscure” words and the emphasis on more basic ones, the College Board is sending a clear message: having a strong vocabulary just isn’t that important, and the only words that matter are STEM-related ones. I can think of a few college professors who might take issues with that idea, particularly the ones who complain about how weak their students’ reading skills are.
But then again, they teach in the humanities, so obviously no one cares what they have to say.
(As a side note, I have to admit I’m surprised at the extent to which the media is blandly parroting the whole “arcane” words thing — it’s remarkably ironic, given that a New York Times article about the overhaul contained a number of “SAT words,” including “winnow,” “galvanizing,” and “thwarting.” So much for critical reflection in journalism.)
In addition to drawing back students who might have otherwise chosen the less vocabulary-heavy ACT, the elimination of sentence completions, along with the elimination of the quarter-point penalty, is also most likely intended to inflate — or at least stabilize — verbal scores, which have been declining for decades now trail math scores by nearly 20 points.
On the combined Reading/Writing: I’ll have to see the questions before I can judge… If they keep inferences, tone, and the “they say/I say” underpinnings, not much will change. (Please, please let them keep the “they say/I say” emphasis — as far as I’m concerned, that’s the central difference between the SAT and the ACT, and the best thing about the SAT as a test of college-level reading.) The whole “find the supporting evidence” just thrusts into a relief a step that was only tested indirectly in the old version. It’s not actually anything new. The SAT is, and apparently will continue to be, a test about the construction of arguments.
But really — “Evidence-based reading and writing?” That’s just a mouthful. From a branding perspective, that one gets a thumbs down.
As for the whole charts and graphs thing… Let’s just say I’m just not looking forward to trying to insert graphs into Word when I revise my books. Ugh.
Most likely, the Writing will be an extension of Fixing Paragraphs, more or less akin to the English section on the the ACT. Having spent the last few months in ACT English-land, I have to confess that I actually like that format better. Real editing always occurs in context, and writing skills can’t really be separated from reading skills. If anything, this will make the test harder. It’s much more difficult to spot a pronoun-antecedent disagreement when the pronoun and the antecedent are in different sentences.
On the provision of free tutoring by Khan Academy: 1) they’re already doing it, and have been for a while — the highly motivated self-starters who currently avail themselves of it will continue to do so, while the ones who need one-on-one instruction will continue to do so as well; and 2) teaching reading is hard enough when you’re sitting next to someone and explaining it directly to them, never mind virtually, especially if that person never mastered the basics. Besides, high schools will now have even less incentive to teach vocabulary. So if the level of the passages stays the same… Well, let’s just say that the need for reading tutoring won’t be disappearing anytime soon.