SAT writing scores drop to lowest in history. What does this mean for America’s vocabulary?

SAT, Writing Score, Reading Score, Lowest Score Ever

What comes to mind when you think about getting into college? Your grades, your personal essay, and of course, your SAT scores. The test that rules the lives of so many high school students was first administered in 1926. At that time “SAT” stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But today, after countless name changes the exam is simply called the SAT Reasoning Test, and those three fateful letters stand for nothing at all. Despite its emptiness, this pseudo-acronym has a serious effect on the futures of 1,664,479 test takers in 2012, the greatest number of students ever to take the SAT. Unfortunately the average results in both the reading and writing sections are the lowest they’ve ever been nationally.

Educators hypothesize that the record high number of test takers is in fact the reason for the record low scores. Many students this year reported that they were the first in their families to take the SAT or even consider applying to college, and a high percentage of these were English language learners. According to Professor Julie Marmor of the San Francisco Language Institute, the vocabulary curriculum for ESL is written with a very different set of priorities: “We try to teach students to read newspaper articles and participate in daily conversation. ‘Diminished’ is an advanced word in an ESL class, not an SAT vocabulary word like ‘pedantic.’”

This issue raises an interesting question about the levels on which we learn the meanings of a word. Although a person may be able to recite a definition, learning to recognize a word in context is another trick entirely. Words on the SAT vocabulary list like “brazen” and “opulent” are chosen with an eye towards improving college-level essays and exist for most students in a purely literary state. Conversely, ESL students learn to recognize contexts in the real world, developing a less specialized but more versatile vocabulary to serve them in speech as well as on the page.

Performance under pressure is one benchmark that highlights this difference, especially on the SAT reading and writing sections where the time allotted for each question is so short. An ESL student may pass an oral exam with flying colors while a native English speaker might choke in front of a class, but regardless of student’s personal aptitudes the SAT remains a written exam. In the main reading sections, students are given 25 minutes to answer 24 questions in which they have to complete a sentence or read a short paragraph and answer questions about its content. Overall that allows for only one minute and two seconds per question. Similarly on the SAT writing, students have 25 minutes to answer 35 questions in which they improve sentences and paragraphs by identifying errors. That only allows 42 seconds per question!

“Based on our monthly exams,” Marmor explained, “it takes our advanced ESL students between a minute and a minute and a half to answer a question with one, maybe two advanced words. And our definition of advanced is nowhere near SAT level.”

So, what does all this mean for America’s college readiness, let alone the country’s vocabulary? Are SAT vocabulary words relevant in real life? And for English Language Learners where does preparing for daily life in English end and preparing for college begin?


  1. The Relavance | The Recipe -  October 8, 2013 - 7:17 pm

    [...] words may not be relevant for some people, but for those of us in higher education they are. A blog post on The Hot Word from dictionary.com”> states that the SAT vocabulary list is chosen with an eye towards improving college-level essays, [...]

  2. Khalaf -  July 27, 2013 - 2:18 am

    This article plus almost all of your comments are deppressing me.
    I am an esl student living in Somalia (situate in Africa), currently i’m preparing IGCSE for seven subjects math, physics, chemistry history biology and ICT. I will take this exam next year.
    After finishing the Igcse exams i’m going to prepare for the SAT exam. But honestly, this article plus your comments deppresed me.
    At first i was thinking that it’s something easy and needs less efforts than IGCSE but for now i’ve decided that it’s more than i was expecting.
    Lastly, i’m doing this exam so as to get scholarship from America, how can i improve my english and how can i get a scholarship from a college in America.

  3. Headshot Photographer -  January 26, 2013 - 6:57 pm

    You can certainly see your enthusiasm within the article you write.
    The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  4. Dovie -  December 16, 2012 - 9:01 am

    710 on reading, 620 on writing.

  5. Ariyete -  November 20, 2012 - 8:03 pm

    Students do not do well inSAT because they don’t have enough time to finish and go back check what they wrote.

  6. SHayes -  November 14, 2012 - 9:48 am

    So bored. lol

  7. margarito -  November 6, 2012 - 7:10 am


  8. SHayes -  October 24, 2012 - 11:46 am

    Low test scores?! Yikes. I noticed that the ppl in this world are becoming more stupid. Well it would help if kids would stay in school and stop drinking and smoking, but hey we are all human. First amm. ppl You know it’s true.

  9. Kayla -  October 22, 2012 - 7:50 pm

    I have to take the test in three years! Is it really that bad?

  10. brian -  October 13, 2012 - 7:10 pm

    @Born1993AndDarnProudOfIt and @chocolatechips12347, i love to read and that reading helps me to improve my vocab every day, i don’t use the dictionary on hard words but i use the context clues around them. that way i can make my own definition for the word and how i would use it in my life so that i will remember instead of getting out a dictionary and memorizing a confusing and lengthy definition that i will probably ever remember

  11. Jessica -  October 10, 2012 - 7:20 am

    I took the SAT not to long ago. The short amount of time really stresses you out….TRUST MEEE :/

  12. SodaPop -  October 6, 2012 - 12:30 am

    SAT vocabulary will have no effect in society. Sure with help of new words it will boost up your intelligence level, but it won’t have any effect with others who are dumb, and wouldn’t understand a word you are saying. Also teachers in school or at least my school, are not efficiently helping me reach new level of vocabulary, just critical thinking, grammar, and reading.

  13. Rae -  October 4, 2012 - 10:36 am

    I took the SAT test that was suggested by this article and score 81%! I am not an American and so the SAT tests do not really frighten me. I think it all comes down to whether you read or not. Most people don’t read anymore. When you read and you come across new words, or words whose meanings you do not know, you should look them up in the dictionary and thus you learn a new word. Try reading…it will help immensely.

  14. Q -  October 3, 2012 - 4:03 pm

    Newspapers and news broadcasts have nearly always been written to a 6th grade reading level, so don’t blame them.

    Your average high schooler these days is taught “to the test.” Not the SAT, a state-mandated test. When English classes (Language Arts, now, I suppose) had the freedom to teach in different ways, more kids were reached. Vocabulary tests, grammar education, literature and analysis, Greek and Latin roots — all these things contribute to higher SAT scores. Include critical thinking (which comes up in literary criticism) and you’re golden. Except Texas doesn’t want to teach critical thinking skills anymore. Many places won’t teach evolution. It seems every week I read about a novel a teacher wanted to use in class, only to have a parent throw a fit about it and get it thrown out (this is Banned Books Week, BTW). When teachers can actually teach again, we’ll see improvement. (I’m not a teacher, in case anyone was wondering.)

    And to those of you freaking out — don’t. It’s just a test, not the rest of your life. Live now, study some, but don’t fall into the perfection trap, because there is no such thing. Enjoy your life, because an SAT score won’t make up for time lost with friends and family.

  15. Becca -  October 3, 2012 - 1:38 pm

    I think dummying down the tests is a RIDICULOUS idea. These kids should be held to high standards; some kids get through college these days without even knowing how to punctuate a sentence properly. As a highschool student, I don’t think mostly it’s a problem of low intelligence, simply the unwillingness of kids in highschool to do what they should be. Many highschool kids these days slack off and don’t live up to the standards. However, I understand that sometimes it can be a case of test fear, so I’m not saying it’s entirely based on intelligence.

  16. HS English Teacher -  October 3, 2012 - 1:26 pm

    @Viiryen – I think your comments are very accurate and well stated! What goes on at home needs to back up what teachers are trying to do in the classroom. I don’t know how it is all over the US, but in my school, the teachers are trying VERY hard to improve students’ literacy!

  17. chocolatechips12347 -  October 3, 2012 - 12:28 pm

    @Born1993AndDarnProudOfIt, yes! I love to read and normally read about a book every two days… and I like them better as higher level stuff, not junk. Reading also helps with my writing, which I also really enjoy. I hope to be a novelist someday:)

  18. Scott -  October 3, 2012 - 12:18 pm

    I tutored two Korean young men living in America just 6 years. Both studied every SAT prep book written. One got a 2300 on the SAT. The other did not do so well due to being a little older. Both are excellent in science and math, yet they still have trouble writing correctly.

    The high school just seemed to pass them along in English giving them both As.

    We cannot fault the High School, because as mentioned here, students want to get into the best schools, but what will be the result if great grades do not reflect an excellent education.

    There is a lot of pressure on educators, especially in Honor and AP courses to ensure that students do well on standardized tests to maintain employment.

    I work in IT and there are not too many native speakers. We need to increase the aptitude of our students to ensure that they can compete in the world economy.

  19. kmoney -  October 3, 2012 - 11:50 am

    The comments section here is even more depressing than the actual story.

    Having a large vocabulary is the cornerstone of effective communication. Not to mention, it enriches your life a good deal more when you can instantly express yourself in the most concise terms.

    All you kids are worried about “getting into a good college.” Geez.
    I hope one day you learn to realize the importance of being fluent in your own language, and enjoying it for all of the diversity it has to offer.

    Until then, keeping rotating those flashcards like it meas anything. The best way to learn new words is to, oh, I don’t know, actually give a flip about them.

  20. AriaKristine -  October 3, 2012 - 11:25 am

    I agree with Born1993AndDarnProudOfIt with the reading the books for chocolatechips12347. I’m always reading books, and even though I hardly get the dictionary out to look up words I don’t know, the whole context is what helps me out considerablely.

    Yes, society is failing. In my Yearbook class, we’re doing this “We Are” theme that requires adjectives on the dividers, and the majority of my classmates are wanting words like “pretty” for the mugshots and “strong” for the sports. It’s sad in my opinion that no one wants stronger sounding words. Not big-big words that no one will understand (even though I go to a college-prep school) but not wimpy words like those. It’s irritating.

  21. Matthew -  October 3, 2012 - 8:24 am

    Could it be that the standards in elementary and high schools across the country have dropped so low that students aren’t really prepared? Maybe we should dummy down the SAT’s as well as some would suggest.

  22. Viiryen -  October 3, 2012 - 8:01 am

    I would have to agree that the large number of test takers does make a difference. In some ways it’s actually flattering, because a larger number of people are interested in education and are participating. On the other hand, all-around lower scores can be somewhat telling, though I would not take them for gospel in terms of assessing the overall health of a society.

    I do feel that the average vocabulary of high school students (ESL excluded) is generally lacking, but I don’t blame schools for this so much as lifestyle and culture. Vocabulary lists and word memorization tend to develop test taking skills, not practical ones. When put in an isolated, “sterilized” environment, the nuances of natural speech are constricted. If a word learned in this manner cannot be applied naturally and efficiently, and in a way which is meaningful to that person’s life, that word effectively becomes useless to the speaker. It exists for the sole purpose of filling in test sheets, which is an artificially construed device at best.

    True vocabulary building is something that’s hard to do through artificial means. In my opinion, it should ideally exist in a natural state: the words used by friends and family, media, books (not textbooks) and anything else that surrounds us on a daily basis are what builds our vocabularies. In ESL and other language learning, some classroom-style settings can an exception due to how stress-free an environment they can be for a non-native speaker when compared to a real-world environment, but even this only goes so far.

    Given this, at some point we’re forced to question how accurately SAT scores actually reflect English skills in real-world applications. The speed at which one must answer questions is staggering even for some native speakers, and so often they fail to capture the essence of either natural speech or well-composed written language. Are the skills tested and exercised on the SAT even practical?

    Ultimately, It’s not what we say or how we think in a classroom while under a microscope that defines us or our abilities, it’s what we do outside the classroom that counts. If you really want to know the skill and intelligence of a person, spend 15 minutes talking and actually listening to them. They’ll surprise you more often than not.

  23. Dave -  October 3, 2012 - 7:31 am

    This article is too subjective. Study hard, be aggressive in learning and you will succeed. Be confident in what you are doing.

    “Learn with the intent to teach and you will learn more deeply.” Stephen Covey

  24. Emperor -  October 3, 2012 - 5:36 am

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. Society is really dumb. I’ve seen this epidemic everywhere. On Youtube, Facebook.. people just don’t care about writing correctly anymore. If you try amend someone’s grammar, he or she will scold you for it. Society is becoming increasingly dumber.

  25. David -  October 3, 2012 - 4:37 am

    For all those freaking out about the SAT: Don’t! I found that even before discovering great resources like Dictionary.com (and its equally useful partner, Thesaurus.com), my vocabulary was sufficiently advanced for the SAT. I’ll say that while I didn’t read too many books as a kid (don’t worry, I’m only 20 now), the ones I DID read forced me to look up a lot of words. I could’ve understood the meaning of the sentence with the unfamiliar word through context (most of the time :P), but I went the extra step and found out the exact definition. Then, I tried to use it in my own writing, and I found that the meaning stuck for me that way.

    I think, in almost all things, it’s easier to learn if you first examine it, then try to apply it; if you just try to memorize it, you might be successful, but… good luck. The article states it well: SAT vocabulary was selected to help college students write essays, and that’s something you’ll definitely have to do.

    Very few people are going to recall all of the SAT vocabulary perfectly, but try to learn the words through application. Doesn’t matter if you’re an English learner or a native speaker.

  26. brian -  October 2, 2012 - 7:07 pm

    im in 8th grade and this test has already got me studying like my eyes are going to burn out. I’d wish they’d give the SAT takers more time.

  27. meh!!!!! -  October 2, 2012 - 6:53 pm


  28. Jass'ifer -  October 2, 2012 - 6:33 pm


  29. bc -  October 2, 2012 - 5:49 pm

    Depends on the kind of video games you’re playing. I’ve learned about Qin Shi Huangdi and Babylon and the Spanish conquest of the Americas by grade 3 thanks to video games. And I have to say that my vocabulary definitely expanded after playing these games. Of course, if you’re raking in hours and hours on Call of Duty, that’s different.

  30. Brian -  October 2, 2012 - 5:15 pm

    Read some books to expand your vocab. :3

  31. Kurobane -  October 2, 2012 - 5:04 pm

    Micah, not entirely songs from anime such as Umineko Koro ni actually contain advanced words that would make the meaning hard to decipher. For instance, the word ephemeral is used in the Ricordando il passato.

  32. Himiko -  October 2, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    @Franco actually Japanese video games take a higher level of thinking than English ones so to make it accessible for American kids they take the hard words out.

  33. jake -  October 2, 2012 - 1:48 pm

    That must really suck for them….:(

  34. Born1993AndDarnProudOfIt -  October 2, 2012 - 1:27 pm

    chocolatechips12347 it’s great you’re doing word dynamos and word games but reading A LOT of books could give you a considerable advantage. Not only does it broaden your vocabulary but it inculcates proper syntax, grammar, punctuation etc…

  35. skye -  October 2, 2012 - 11:03 am

    If it had been a text test would they have done better? lolol

  36. Micah -  October 2, 2012 - 9:49 am

    I agree with Franco. I think a part of the problem is popular culture. Music, video games, movies, even the news; none of them use sophisticated vocabulary. It seems like everything in our society is being dumbed down, so it’s not really surprising when test scores drop.

  37. [...] http://hotword.dictionary.com/lowest-sat-scores/ The test that rules the lives of so many high school students was first  administered in 1926. At that time “SAT” stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But  today, after countless name changes the exam is simply called the SAT Reasoning  Test, and those three fateful letters stand for nothing at all. Despite  its emptiness, this pseudo-acronym has a serious effect on the futures of  1,664,479 test takers in 2012, the greatest number of students ever to take the  SAT. Unfortunately the average results in both the reading and writing sections  are the lowest they’ve ever been nationally. [...]

  38. LOWESTSATSCORES | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 2, 2012 - 8:24 am

    [...] “Lowest sat Scores” — To open any doors. — We welcome our senility — imaginative fertility. — With only environmental poverty in our future. — Lapsed Regulation of the Moors. — No Band Aid nor suture — Can help as time goes by — The Process yet to hesitate — Machine Made Climate Change on the Fly. — Of course we’ve fallen off your Mark — There’s no reason to participate — To bite without the bark. — Hamartia to instigate — To stop the Paving of the Park — Let alone the rest of the Earth. — Something much more is happening — Without a Change of Mind or Worldly Change in Kind — SAT Scores of little worth. –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]

  39. Patrick Oliver -  October 2, 2012 - 7:59 am

    I could never take a test in that short a time, chiefly such an important one.

  40. Franco -  October 2, 2012 - 7:25 am

    Not a lot of high level vocabulary found in rap music or video games.

  41. Chantilly_Amelie4 -  October 2, 2012 - 4:25 am

    This doesn’t bother me. I’m Australian ;)

  42. Cyberquill -  October 2, 2012 - 2:49 am

    I thought SAT stood for any test taken on a Saturday.

  43. asdasd -  October 1, 2012 - 9:39 pm


  44. a fortiori -  October 1, 2012 - 8:33 pm

    I don’t quite understand the premise. What percentage of test takers are from the ESL section? Are there more ESL test takers than prior years? There have always been students who take the exam not having english as their first language. And there have always been students who are first in their family to attend college. Unless aside from the record high number of test takers, there was also a record high number of ESL test takers in percentage to overal test takers, then your premise for the hypothesis stated above is not sound.

  45. Analise -  October 1, 2012 - 7:29 pm

    This is quite frightening >.<

    I mean, I want to get into Stanford, but both my parents are immigrants, and my previous dad left my mom, so we're sort of not that rich X_X

    Since I'm on the honor's program, I'm learning words that I should know after graduating High School, with 200 morphemes, BUT is that even enough!~?

    I'm in eight grade, and I want to get into Lowell High School, so that I can almost have a guarantee ticket of getting into Stanford, but these SAT tests are SCARING me a lot….

  46. DJ -  October 1, 2012 - 5:25 pm

    Maybe some of the fault lies with the teachers. If they don’t check to make sure the students are understanding…then the scores will be low because they don’t know what they are doing.

  47. anonymous -  October 1, 2012 - 5:09 pm

    I’m really nervous of this whole SAT thingy. Its driving me insane whenever i hear of it or think of it. I mean im only in 8th grade and i’m starting to prepare for it. I have these huge Kaplan SAT books and the writing just makes we faint. Curse you SAT!!! I hope these guys give people more chance on getting better grades and more time.

  48. alex -  October 1, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    Are they saying the word ‘pedantic’ is SAT level vocabulary word? That’s ridiculous, even my 11 year old knows what it means…

  49. CourtneyH -  October 1, 2012 - 4:27 pm

    Good for you, chocolatechips12347! Keep up the good work. They say that practice makes perfect, and practicing/learning vocab words can indeed help on the SAT; however, vocab isn’t everything. If you haven’t already done so, check out the college board website (CollegeBoard.org) which offers free SAT practice questions in both math and English. I hope you do well on the SAT. Good Luck!

  50. Rosalyn -  October 1, 2012 - 3:46 pm

    This article is making me freak out….I wanna go to Stanford and I was so sure I could get in but now………auggghhhh……

  51. chocolatechips12347 -  October 1, 2012 - 2:42 pm

    This is so sad :( I am doing all the word dynamo word games on the SAT now! I want to get into a really good college, but my family is very poor. So I am trying to get a smart as I can to get as many scholarships as possible… :)

  52. Simi -  October 1, 2012 - 2:18 pm

    Hopefully this will change soon… but don’t get your hopes up.


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