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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Long Live the SATs

Education Pre K-12

This week the National Association for College Admission Counseling's report did not call for the complete elimination of the SAT from college admissions evaluations, and I am glad about that. However, in suggesting that "some" schools consider doing so, the report is part of a trend toward dismissing the SAT as an elitist scourge and evaluating students on the basis of grades, writing samples, subject tests, and testaments to their spunk.

The good-thinking wisdom is that because students from book-lined homes tend to do better on the SAT and can get coaching, and because the SAT has been shown to not predict first-year college performance as well as grades, that it has to go. However, especially when it comes to the verbal section, we are throwing a baby out with the bathwater.

Namely, it is fashionable to dismiss the verbal analogies—querulous is to complain as deceitful is to cheat—as a mere antiquarian pony trick. Famously, in 2001 then the president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, broadcast to the press his dismay at having seen 12-year-old students being drilled in—gasp—vocabulary.

"I learned that they spend hours each month—directly and indirectly—preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as 'untruthful is to mendaciousness' as 'circumspect is to caution.' The time involved was not aimed at developing the students' reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills."

But back in the day, a newsreel would have presented this very tableau as, well, school.

And there was a reason. Critics of standardized testing seem to assume that learning words like mendacious and circumspect is unrelated to developing students' reading abilities. But an English professor at Rutgers University, William Dowling, has argued that—as most of us would suspect—mastery of advanced vocabulary is vital to understanding the texts presented to a college student.

"When a departmental task ... gave me an opportunity to compare the grades of my English 219 students over several years with their incoming SATV, the verbal portion of the SAT, scores, I compiled a simple statistical chart," Mr. Dowling said. "What I found was that the SATV scores had an extraordinarily high correlation with final grades, and that neither, in the many cases where I had come to know my students' personal backgrounds, seemed to correlate very well with socio-economic status."

Mr. Dowling gave an example of an actual SAT question: "The traditional process of producing an oil painting requires so many steps that it seems ______ to artists who prefer to work quickly. (A) provocative (B) consummate (C) interminable (D) facile (E) prolific." He noted that students who know one of these words are likely to know the others, and that knowing that the correct answer is interminable is a strong indication that a student is able to easily process prose at this level.

To be sure, Mr. Dowling stresses that at the end of the day, what makes a student ace the verbal portion of the SAT is being a heavy reader. It has certainly been my observation that undergraduates with an effortless facility with "big words" are bookworms.

From this follows an objection that the SAT I is discriminatory against students whose backgrounds made becoming a bookworm less likely. But aren't classroom drills in the meanings of these words a societally provisioned way to help level the playing field?

This is especially important in a society in which substantial print prose recedes ever more in daily experience. If we are really so concerned about young people's increasing semiliteracy, is there no place in our educational system for some pointed exposure to the higher levels of our vocabulary, which students are increasingly unlikely to encounter otherwise?

Okay—the SAT is only mildly predictive of college grades. But how about preserving the grand old analogy problems for a larger purpose, especially given that such training can help when students are faced with reading hefty texts in college?

After all, there are various things that people so leery of the SAT consider unnegotiably central to an education even though they are tangential to scholarly performance. Take the workshops and classes devoted to diversity and multiculturalism.

What kind of nation are we that feels that mastering the nuances of the mighty vocabulary of our tongue is less important than these things? Even for college students?

Really. Russian students are steeped in Pushkin, Orthodox Jewish men are trained in the subtleties of Biblical Hebrew words. But here in America we wonder where the love of our country has gone—yet consider it more important for an undergraduate to understand that racism can be subtle as well as overt than to know the meanings of the words interminable, facile, and prolific. O tempora, o mores.

Oh, but Lord Forbid our delicate youngsters be burdened with learning pointy-headed words like temporal and mores.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun