BURRISS: Dumbing down tests reflection of the decline of English language

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Starting in 2016, high school students will face a new Scholastic Assessment Test, the dreaded SAT. The developers say they are trying to make the test more practical and fair.

The unspoken sub-text here is that the new test is supposed to measure what the students actually know, what they actually should know.

And therein lies the rub: as student ability declines, the test makers will apparently change the test scale to follow the decline. Call me old fashioned, but it seems that if the test were made more difficult, then high school teachers, who today are rewarded for “teaching to the test,” will teach the more difficult material.

Be that as it may, my particular concern is with the language portion of the test, which has also been dumbed down.

It seems the test makers have decided that some words are too “impractical” to be used in every day conversation. But language is more than just the words we use every day. It is also the language we use in more formal discourse, and the way the words are put together.

Certainly words such as “punctilious,” “indefatigable” and “probity” aren’t used very often in conversations with our friends. But they are used in sophisticated literature and in more formal writing.

Now I’m not suggesting that high school students should memorize the dictionary, which includes thousands of obsolete words. What I am suggesting is that dumbing down the test is, in fact, a reflection of the general decline in English language education and sophistication of many high school students today.

Come to think of it, perhaps the term “SAT words” should be eliminated. It marginalizes the language and makes it appear that some words are somehow more esoteric, arcane, or inscrutable.

Sure, those three words themselves may be ones we don’t use very much, but that makes them even more important. It means they are particular words that have a particular use. Not just any old word, but the precisely right word to convey a precise meaning.

And that’s what good communication should be.

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Members Opinions:
March 16, 2014 at 8:37am
I have yet to figure out what value the word "like" adds to a conversation, but it is a mainstay in young people's conversation today. Most often we hear "I'm like" when an opinion is about to be expressed. Young people today are the (Lemings of language) When one goes over the cliff the rest follow. Textng is destroying the ability to spell, young people can no longer do simple math in their head. The dumbest of the dumb have become slaves to their I phone and they wonder why they can't get a job.
March 17, 2014 at 8:23pm
Mr.Burgess,can you please explain your comment "as student ability declines"? Generally, students are doing better on all kinds of standardized tests. In fact, standardized tests have to be re-normed every few years for just that reason. If you have evidence to the contrary, you need to share it with us.

I believe that you have missed the point of standardized tests entirely. We use them to monitor student achievement so we can see if we are preparing those students for their futures. We need to know if they can be good citizens in a democracy and if they can support themselves through some time of employment. Not to satisfy the aesthetic dreams or traditional desires of newspaper columnists. If you can't deliver more content to the reader than you deliver here, why not just post "harrumph" over and over again until you reach the desired number of words. It would be just as informative as what you've written here.
March 19, 2014 at 3:11pm
I have to disagree with your sentiment on the new standards for the SAT. By focusing on more practical words that are likely to be heard or read again by the student, the SAT is taking a step in the right direction. In my rather iconoclastic opinion, that step is, if anything, too small. The current education system adheres to a stunningly dated and out-of-touch model developed in a time period far different from now. Most fields—take the environment or the economy for example—have evolved along with society and the changes that have come with technology. Education, on the other hand, continues to stubbornly refuse any adaptation to the modern world.

Outside of a few highly specialized careers, the level of math and vocabulary that is expected of students is unlikely to be revisited or utilized in their future workplace. This definition of ‘intelligence’ is not only archaic, it is borderline racist—or at the very least, classist. Requiring a student to have a lexicon equivalent to Michel Foucault or knowledge of formulas that only John Nash would approve of is in no way of sign of intelligence or an ability to succeed in future endeavors—it is merely a sign of opportunity.

While the developers of the SAT appear to believe we live in a fantasy world of pure meritocracy, I do not. Until the SAT and education system are revolutionized to focus on practicality, creativity, and individuality, I see no merit in judging a student on the basis of their test scores.
March 20, 2014 at 1:17am
I’m not completely sure how I feel about these upcoming adjustment to the SAT. I could definitely see both sides of this argument.

First of all, I don’t by any means am suggesting that expectations NEED to be lowered for students, but the reality is that times are changing and as sad as it is to admit, the way young people are learning and communicating is becoming oversimplified due to outlets such as social media. Maybe by making the test a bit easier, educators may feel more inclined to concentrate more on OVERALL test prep because they might see it as now having more realistic expectations from the student.

Of course this is not a rule and there will always be those who have a much stronger grasp on the English language and will excel tremendously regardless of the level of difficulty they may encounter on tests, but realistically it’s incredible how huge the leap is from someone who is well-versed and has a large vocabulary to someone who has simply memorized all of their SAT vocabulary flash cards. I have seen and known many incredibly intelligent people who have been completely beaten up by the verbal section of the SAT and it’s truly disheartening to see that happen all because of a standardized test with incredibly high, and some might argue, impossible standards.

Growing up I was one of those weird kids who did in fact read the dictionary for fun and I still feel that in that area of standardized testing, while I did have a broader vocabulary, I would have still come up short when presented with words such as the aforementioned “punctilious,” “indefatigable” and “probity.” In certain aspects I agree that the test material should be somewhat “dumbed-down” but at the same time I support the testing of incoming college students ability to not only communicate, but to speak eloquently. I think there should just be some middle of the road solution put in place that would help those who struggle have a better chance, and still challenge and reward those who do have the skill to tackle the more challenging areas of the test.
March 21, 2014 at 4:50pm
I'm not sure if taking away obsolete words out of the SAT dumbs it down. Sure, it may be used in older literature, but in any instance, if I encounter a word I don't know, I look it up.

There are other facets of the English language than vocabulary definitions.
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