New SAT vacates ‘obscure’ words

A sneak peek at the new SAT, due in 2016, includes sample questions.

After reading part of a 1974 speech by Rep. Barbara Jordan during the Nixon impeachment hearings, test takers must “describe Jordan’s stance and the main rhetorical effect of a part of the passage,” reports AP.

Another sample question asks test takers to calculate what it would cost an American traveling in India to convert dollars to rupees. Another question requires students to use the findings of a political survey to answer questions.

Instead of “obscure words,” the new test will focus on “high utility” words tested in context, reports the New York Times.

For example, a question based on a passage about an artist who “vacated” from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word “evacuated,” “departed” or “retired,” or to leave the sentence unchanged. (The right answer is “departed.”)

The new SAT won’t reward students who memorize vocabulary words, reports Time.

Here is an example of a old-style SAT question that students will not be seeing:

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine ——- : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.
(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur

Instead, students will be asked to figure out the meaning of a word from the context:

[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.

As used in line 55, “intense” most nearly means
A) emotional.
B) concentrated.
C) brilliant.
D) determined.

Testing words in context penalizes the studious and helps the privileged, responds Ann Althouse. Working-class achievers can “study lists of difficult vocabulary words and tricks about how to figure out the meaning,” but will find it harder to study words in context. The children of educated, articulate parents learn vocabulary through conversation. “The way words appear in context is, for them, deeply ingrained, easy, and natural.”

She wonders if the goal is “to disadvantage the overachieving, drudge-like student.”

Overachieving drudges as in Asian-Americans?

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  1. I sort of like “vacated”; it’s funny. I would have selected the option of keeping it unchanged. This is a stylistic judgment call without a single right answer.

  2. Seems to me the “in context” question is a better sampling of a students ability to comprehend readings. The obscure words is an affectation. If encountered in reading, it is simple to look them up these days, often with just a click. Of course, a student may have to determine which definition fits how the word is used in context.

    As for the class issue, won’t we see training aids to help the “overachieving drudge-like student” develop better skills in determining word meanings from context?

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    I find this example of the new test not only strange but actually completely wrong.

    In the sentence “intense”, or more appropriately “more intense” is a modifier of the gerund “clustering”. It is “clustering” that means “concentrated”; the “intense” by itself does not mean “concentrated” at all. It’s hard to look at this sentence and properly define “intense”. If pressed, I suppose I’d say “more intense” could be defined here as “increasingly”.

    If you actually know the grammar and can parse the sentence, then this question would drive a test-taker nuts. I’d want to start writing in the margins how stupid and wrong the obviously-preferred answer is.

    • Well, “intense” comes from the Latin “intensus,” “stretched, strained, tight”; hence the association with “concentrated.”

      That said, this question would probably throw a lot of kids off, since they would associate clustering itself with a kind of concentration.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      What they are really doing is asking which word is the best substitute, which is a VERY different question than asking which word most nearly means the same thing.

      In fact, I’m not convinced anything’s really changing here. It’s as if they were asking the previous sort of fill-in-the-blank question, but giving a (somewhat misleading) “hint” and a bigger bit of explanatory exposition.

      Seriously, just erase the word “intense” and pretend it’s a blank line. Instant old-style question.

      I’ve expressed my opinion of the median/modal writer of standardized language arts tests before, so I won’t bother repeating myself here.

  4. cranberry says:

    From the New York Times article: “The new test will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written language test with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions.”

    Any word on the extended time question? Will the College Board still not flag exams administered with extended time? It seems to me the time constraints are significant.