Is the SAT Sounding the Death Knell of Robust Lexicons?

I am sure that following David Coleman’s speech at the annual NACAC conference yet another round of articles will penned decrying the burden of the malevolent SAT vocabulary. For years, students have been alone in their lamentation of the SAT’s propensity for underscoring the deficiencies in their respective vocabularies. Now these students have an ally in the new College Board president, who’s taken to joining the cacophony surrounding the SAT and its “arcane” vocabulary. In each of his public comments about the impending changes to the SAT, he’s been taking swipes at the words tested on his own exam. His comments have carried the implication that these tested words are no longer relevant, popular, and by extension not useful to learn. He has given tacit endorsement (whether intentional or not) to the idea that there is such a thing as an “SAT word” (a word that one learns for the SAT and will never use again). This rhetoric from the architect of Common Core State Standards and the de facto baby daddy of the Forthcoming New SAT (let’s call it: FNSAT), may be exciting for students, should be concerning to all of us logophiles.


David Coleman, president of the College Board, wants to get rid of obscure words that are . . . just SAT words…


Mr. Coleman’s comments on the “arcane” words that are on the SAT, not only laying the groundwork for the elimination of Sentence Completions from the test, but also and more disconcertingly sending the wrong message to students, parents, and educators. He is sending a message that devalues language, a message that diminishes scholarship, a message that restricts rather than broadens the original intent behind testing vocabulary, a message that does more harm than good. His message, while it excites me for the future of the SAT, ultimately saddens me as it may negatively impact students and certainly any appreciation of the English language. It also makes me wonder by what measure Mr. Coleman is determining “arcane” and “unused.”

I’ve spent 20 years intensely studying the SAT and the words that are on the test, which are by and large still very much alive and well. In fact, I’d lay a substantial wager that every word on the SAT in the past 5 years has also appeared in print in a magazine or newspaper in the past 5 years. If that’s not an indicator of a living word than what is? Given that the folks at College Board should be psychometricians and educators let’s apply a little objective analysis to the words on the SAT.  I took the answer choices from the question 5 in Section 2 of the May 2013 SAT and entered them into Google Ngram to see how the usage of these words have varied in the last 100 or so years in literature, here’s the result:


As you can see these words are generally as popular or more popular than they were 100 years ago. So by what measure is Mr. Coleman claiming that these words are outdated and unused beyond the SAT? While clearly some words on the test are less common than they once were, it seems that the amount of derision being heaped upon the vocabulary on the test is uncalled for.


Words that we see everyday are used on the SAT


I hope with the impending changes to the SAT that the College Board finds a way to continue to encourage students to develop their vocabulary. The number of students I encounter who cannot define the “SAT words” I find in the real world is shocking. I often give my students real world vocabulary quizzes that look like this and am stunned by how many of the words they don’t know:

  • Movies
  • Minion
  • Despicable
  • Insidious
  • Scuttle
  • Jetsam
  • X-men
  • Gambit
  • Rogue
  • Havok
  • Jubilee
  • Juggernaut
  • Cars
  • Intrepid
  • Accord
  • Gallant
  • Acclaim
  • Envoy
  • Music
  • Notorious
  • Nirvana
  • Ludicrous
  • Credence
  • Daft
  • Magazines
  • Allure
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Maxim
  • Vogue
  • Essence

Check out this list of answer choices from the May 2013 SAT (section 2 questions 1 – 5). The hyperlinked words will take you to a google search for the words appearance in the newspaper in the last year. You can be your own judge as to how esoteric the words tested are.

  • threatened
  • neglected
  • invaded
  • established
  • strengthened
  • contending
  • exempting
  • collaborating
  • describing
  • fraternizing
  • predicting
  • circumventing
  • depicting
  • ousting
  • imitating
  • guarded
  • hypersensitive
  • vigilant
  • embittered
  • solicitous
  • querulous
  • reticent
  • taciturn
  • garrulous

Let’s hope Mr. Coleman sees the value of toning down the rhetoric and bolstering the love of language that will do nothing but help students in high school, college, and life.

  • (646) 414-1586
COPYRIGHT ©2002 - 2020 BELL CURVES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. All tests names are registered trademarks of the respective testing companies, which do not endorse and are not affiliated with Bell Curves.
BELL CURVES - 25 West 36th Street, 8th Floor - New York, NY 10018 Bell Curves is an educational services and test preparation company. It delivers high-quality consulting services, test preparation programs, and self-study resources to students throughout the country.
Equal Opportunity Employer - Privacy Policy - Refund Policy