Why having a varied vocabulary is important

The College Board has made a big show of proclaiming that it has removed the “SAT words” from the SAT. The problem is that unless you “dumb down” the reading passages, the dreaded higher tier vocabulary words will still exist. The problem with asking students whether they think words like assiduous and deleterious are useful is that they are not doing the level of reading required at university, and so they don’t encounter these words as often as they will at university. The adults who criticize these “unfair” words are influenced by hyperbolic articles that focus on a rare word and criticize the entire premise of the test based on a singular use, out of context I might add, of “refulgent”. But isn’t the point of the test to sort students and identify the best ones?

Ideally, nobody should get a perfect score. Yes, you read that correctly. I said nobody should get perfect. The test should include obscure and challenging vocabulary in order to effectively differentiate among students.  In the past, students took the test without preparation, and it was used as a sorting mechanism. However, with today’s hyper-competitive mindset, a good score is not seen as good enough. Students are pushed to achieve “perfection” at any cost. The cost is of course true learning and understanding. Far too many students focus on the end result–the magic number that is the shibboleth to the Ivy Gates. (Don’t know what shibboleth is? Look it up. Or even better, watch Season 2 episode 8 of The West Wing) The problem is that once inside the hallowed halls of academia these students falter because they don’t truly have the skills to excel in the type of academics that universities require. The chief ability is being able to read large amounts of text that often contains obscure language. If students are incapable of doing so, they won’t be able to process the vast amount of material that they need to in order to do well in their classes. It is as simple as that.

Unfortunately, many students and parents look at tests such as the SAT as unfair and antiquated barriers to entrance to top-tier universities. In some aspects that may be true, but the vocabulary is not the problem. Requiring students to have a rich and varied vocabulary is not a punishment, but a signal that language is a vital component of the types of communication that happen in university. University is all about reading, thinking, and writing, and without the exact words to convey your meaning, how can you expect to present something new?

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