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Goodbye, SAT words; hello, Tier Two words

A look at the College Board’s new approach to testing vocabulary.

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Student work sheets are seen at a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md.

Alex Brandon/AP

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This winter marks a big change in the SAT, the college entrance exam formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test but now well known enough to inspire terror with just its initials.

The New SAT has been administered this month for the first time. Let it not be said that the College Board lacks a sense of humor. It marked the end of the old test with a press release headlined, “The College Board Elegizes Anachronistic Verbiage with Recondite Panegyric; Celebrates Final Administration of the Extant SAT® on Jan. 23.”

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The new test reflects the work of educators Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, who divide vocabulary into three “tiers.”

Tier One words are the simple ones children will pick up on their own: clock, say, or baby. Tier Three words – isotope, say, or peninsula – are generally tied to a specific domain and best learned as needed.

Tier Two words tend to have multiple meanings, across a range of domains. 

“Tier Two is all about polysemy,” observes Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and executive editor of Vocabulary.com, which provides online vocabulary-building materials for individuals (free of charge) and schools and school districts (by license). The company, working from materials the College Board has made public, has produced a “road map” to the new test.

Polysemy, your 50-cent new word for the day, means having, or being open to, multiple meanings.

Mr. Zimmer gives an example: Host, for instance. It’s used in biology and computer science as well as in social conversation and other areas. 

Compare, for instance, soporific, a Tier Three classic. Four Latin-derived syllables to describe something that makes you sleepy, it’s high-flown but one-dimensional. 

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The old SAT rewarded rote memorization of definitions. The new test asks students what words are being used to mean in the context of a particular passage. 

The Vocabulary.com “road map” also includes a section on the “Language of the Test.” Its words “are not the words that may show up in the reading passages,” the website explains; “they are the words that show up everywhere else.” 

The existence of such a section would seem to reinforce the point of those who call the SAT and its ilk tests of test-
taking skill rather than of actual “scholastic aptitude.”

The New SAT, Zimmer observes, is particularly concerned with testing how well students are identifying “arguments” and “claims” being made in the reading passages, and the “evidence” presented to support them. But if a student thinks of an “argument” not as a tool of persuasion but rather as something likely to get him sent to the principal’s office, he might not do too well on the test. 

That’s what the “Language of the Test” is meant to address, “to make it so that students of whatever background can succeed on the test,” Zimmer says.


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