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?