Burriss: Why dumb down the SAT?



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.