Recently, a colleague who is foreign-language classroom teacher told me the following story: since she started teaching around a decade ago, she’s always made sure to introduce her beginning-level classes to the concept of cognates – words that are very similar in English and the Romance language she teaches, and that are derived from a common root.
Every previous year, her students had been perfectly receptive to the concept, but this year they would have none of it: they mocked the term cognate as an obscure “SAT word” and insisted that they shouldn’t be forced to learn it.
My colleague then asked her students how they expected to be able to read high-level material in high school and college without a strong vocabulary.
Nothing. Blank stares.
She recounted the incident to me shortly after it occurred, adding that she was worried that her students had so thoroughly absorbed the generalized cultural pooh-poohing of challenging vocabulary that their reading comprehension would end up being seriously affected.
My response: I think that ship already sailed.
Also, a month or two ago, I was playing HQ (yes, I confess, I went through a mercifully brief period of addiction), and one of the questions had as its answers something like innocuous, meticulous, and gregarious. Again, “Look, SAT words”!
For the record, the SAT stopped directly testing college-level vocabulary more than two years ago now. My colleague’s students will never have to learn words like cognate (which in any case is almost certainly too specialized to have appeared on the old test).
As I’ve written about before, the concept of “arcane” SAT vocabulary has become what Paul Krugman has termed a zombie idea, and one that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that the “regatta: oarsman” analogy question from the early 1980s is still being used as evidence for the SAT’s cultural bias is a pretty good indicator of how tenaciously tropes about the SAT hang on.
In the popular imagination, it does not matter – and probably never will matter – that the test has changed. Some associations are too firmly entrenched for something as piddling as reality to intrude. Moderately challenging college-level vocabulary = SAT vocabulary = weird and obscure. This is why it is almost impossible to have a reality-based conversation about the SAT with people outside the test-prep world.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that adults who would normally be considered intelligent and well-read (still!) take a perverse kind of delight in mocking so-called “SAT words” (which in other contexts they would not hesitate to use, given that for many educated adults, “SAT words” are just “words”). Frankly, I find that more than a little weird.
What this points to for me, though, is a more worrisome form of thinking, one that frequently extends to standardized testing in general.
This mindset can be expressed in a sort of syllogism:
-The SAT tests certain content.
-The SAT is a stupid and pointless test.
-Thus, the content tested on the SAT is stupid and pointless.
Now, to be sure, the redesigned SAT tests some things that are in fact stupid and pointless: see, for example, the College Board’s bizarre definition of evidence.
But the test’s past and present faults notwithstanding, it is hard to argue that a strong vocabulary is not something worth acquiring. To state what should be obvious, not knowing a lot of words seriously limits what types of texts a person can and cannot comprehend, which in turn affects their ability to present themselves in words, which – to make a utilitarian argument – affects their ability to do things like obtain well-paying jobs. The same goes for, say, knowing the difference between a sentence and a fragment. The reality is that a candidate who submits a cover letter riddled with comma splices and sentence fragments probably will not get hired.
However, the tendency to assume that because the test is problematic, the content it covers must by extension be problematic as well, gives people license to bash what is in fact important knowledge for college-bound students. It allows them to indulge in a kind of smarmy anti-intellectualism, often under the guise of do-gooderism, while still professing to love “true education” (which, as E.D. Hirsch laid out so brilliantly, is always placed in rhetorical opposition to “rote learning” or the acquisition of “mere facts,” into which category vocabulary-study is presumably relegated.)
At its base, though, this attitude is profoundly anti-knowledge. Or, not much better, opposed to knowledge that needs to be taught rather than naturally acquired.
Looking back, one of the things I found truly bizarre about the announcement that the SAT was abandoning its traditional focus on vocabulary was the almost total and complete lack of pushback from English teachers.
Think about that for a minute: the people who should have been most concerned about vocabulary development were for the most part silent about the implications of the test’s eliminating the kinds of words that allow students to read at a higher level. (Or at least there was no concerted pushback that got coverage.) The same was true for math teachers and the elimination of geometry from the exam. And yet everyone seemed to accept that lack of outcry as perfectly normal. It’s not, though. It’s actually really strange.
A colleague who teaches SAT prep courses has informed me on several occasions that his students’ English classes, in a top suburban district in one of the wealthiest, most highly educated states, now devote virtually no time whatsoever to vocabulary — presumably, the absence of pushback was at least in part due to the fact that English teachers do not consider one of the most fundamental elements of their own subject particularly important.
For me, that more than almost anything else is indicative of just how far down the rabbit hole the American education system has fallen.