The Case for SAT Words

High-schoolers should know what "unscrupulous" means.

On several occasions in the past year, David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, has suggested that changes need to be made to the vocabulary tested on the exam.  In a talk he gave at the Brookings Institution a year ago, Coleman remarked, “I think when you think about vocabulary on exams, you know, how SAT words are famous as the words you will never use again? You know, you study them in high school and you’re like, gosh, I’ve never seen this before, and I probably never shall.” Coleman co-opted an old criticism of the SAT, that it forced students to learn difficult vocabulary that is useless for much of anything other than scoring well on the exam. He went on, “Why wouldn’t it be the opposite?  Why wouldn’t you have a body of language on the SAT that’s the words you most need to know and be ready to use again and again? Words like transform, deliberate, hypothesis, right?”

Jim Montoya, the College Board’s Vice President of Higher Education, in an interview on NPR, reiterated Coleman’s criticism of “SAT words.” Asked why the SAT is “always [testing] the word 'unscrupulous',” Montoya replied, “Yes, you're right. It's one of those words people identify as an SAT word. All I can say is that as we move forward, one of the things we want to make absolutely certain of is that the vocabulary that students are expected to know will be vocabulary that they will be able to use as college students, and which will be valuable to them.”

Coleman’s comments on vocabulary provoked little response at the time, although one commentator accused him of “sending a message that devalues language.”  The notion that some words are not worth knowing is bound to raise the hackles not only of people who love the wealth and power of all kinds of words, including fancy ones, but also of people who know just how much importance educational experts attribute to what they call “lexical richness,” or a large and diverse vocabulary.  Coleman just so happens to be both of those kinds of people, and he understands that the question is less what vocabulary students should learn vocabulary than how they should learn it. 

The College Board’s unfortunate remarks make it sound like the choice is to decide which of two classes of words to teach and test—the technical (e.g., “hypothesis”) or the writerly (e.g., “unscrupulous”)—neither of which is particularly likely to appear in ordinary conversation. The real choice, though, is between treating vocabulary as part of a strong education that incorporates a lot of reading in all the disciplines or teaching vocabulary explicitly with word lists, flashcards, quizzes, and high stakes standardized tests.  The surprising news is that the College Board seems to be adopting the first view, even if it has done a poor job in saying so.


There is a simple explanation why the SAT does not test words like transform and hypothesis.  They are too easy.  The linguist Dennis Baron, who runs The Web of Language, suggested that it is inevitable that some SAT words are on the obscure side. Baron said, “If [the College Board’s] goal is to [test] words that only the most massively memorizing kid is going to know. . . then [it is] going to have to reach.  It’s like the spelling bee,” although he acknowledged that the SAT’s words are not as extreme as those used by the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which itself added a vocabulary test this year. 

The College Board has to preserve the difficulty of the Reading section of the SAT, because it a norm-referenced exam: It ranks students by percentiles along a bell-curve distribution.  As a result, the exam must be designed so that only a small minority of test takers will be able to answer over 90 percent of the questions correctly.  In contrast, most state standards assessment tests are criterion-referenced exams.  They set a standard for test-takers to meet, with the hope that all of them will do so.  Everyone cannot get an 800 on the SAT Reading section, but all the students in the nation could test at or above grade level on a Common Core State Standards assessment exam; indeed, that is the aim of the Common Core. The difference between the SAT and standards tests lies, ultimately, in what they are designed to do.  State assessments are designed to identify failing students, while the SAT has historically been used to identify the most successful ones, those who can get into the relatively small fraction of selective schools among the nation’s 6,000-plus colleges and universities.

When Coleman and Montoya talk about the testing the words students “most need to know,” they make the SAT sound like a criterion -referenced exam, designed to shape teaching and curriculum.  Instead of talking about measuring a student’s potential for academic success, they make it sound like the exam should play a role in shaping that potential.  This is most likely not a mistake. Before Coleman became the president of College Board in 2012, he played an instrumental role in creating the Common Core Standards. It looks like he is now trying to bring the College Board’s work in line with the Common Core. In order to understand Coleman’s remark about SAT words, Georgia Scurletis wrote at, we need to understand how the Common Core thinks about vocabulary, and, in particular, about different classes of vocabulary.

The Common Core Standards are unambiguous about the value of vocabulary.  They state, “The importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.” They are just as clear about the importance of reading for this acquisition: “vocabulary acquisition eventually stagnates by grade 4 or 5 unless students acquire additional words from written context.”  The Common Core is no enemy of language, but an advocate for its study within its natural habitat.  It is a friend of reading.

The same cannot be said for the SAT.  From the exam’s inception in 1926 and almost without interruption, the SAT has relied heavily on testing vocabulary, perhaps most notoriously in its antonym questions, which asked examinees to pick the best antonym of a stem word from among five choices.  Since the mid-‘90s, the test has moved away from such contextless questions, which were particularly rewarding to those who memorized the dictionary definition of vast numbers of words.  The problem has not gone away, however.  Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of, suggested that “a lot of what might be considered the traditional SAT words might have been a little esoteric and also very specific in their meaning,” which meant that “you just learned this strange-sounding word and its meaning and you’re done,” rather than learning the kinds of words that take on different meanings in different contexts.

On the current SAT, vocabulary is tested in two ways: within the context of reading comprehension passages and in discrete sentence completion questions. Sherral Miller, Vice President of Assessment Development at College Board, reported in an email that both the reading comprehension passages and sentences used in the sentence completions are drawn from published material; they are not written for the test.  College Board does not use a word list for developing questions. The words they test, Miller wrote, “are all important words to know in academic and even civic life; words are not used if they are extremely rare or precious, overly discipline-specific, etc.”  Questions are reviewed by high school and college teachers to determine their “relevance” and “appropriateness,” and their difficulty is assessed by field-testing with students.  Miller did not explain what the criteria are for determining what is appropriate, relevant, difficult, or important to academic and civic life.

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James S. Murphy is a freelance writer and SAT tutor based in Boston. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Way We Like Now: Aesthetics in the Age of the Internet. 

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