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Opinion The changes to the SAT don’t go far enough

The College Board is changing the SAT again. The Post's Nick Anderson explains some things you might not know about the college admissions test and how it has evolved—starting with the meaning behind the letters "SAT." (Video: Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

By now you’ve probably heard the news.

The SAT is reverting to a 1600-point scale, making the essay optional. The vocabulary words and math sections are changing, the guessing penalty (where you were penalized for getting a question wrong instead of not answering it) has been eliminated.

“What?” you may well say. “But the SAT just changed to include that essay.” Ah, but then the ACT started to take over its market share. The college board insists that the changes are happening to make the SAT do a better job of reflecting what students actually learn.

“More reflective of what students learn in high school and college” always, in my experience, is a nicer way of saying “easier.” How could it not be? Look at what people are actually learning. Less and less, every day. Employers, when asked if college students strike them as at all ready for the workforce, have stopped responding and just emit a low, empty chuckle, gazing off into the distance.

Frankly, the SAT has not changed enough.

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Sure, the vocabulary words are no longer what the New York Times describes as “arcane “SAT words.” This is completely right. After all, we wouldn’t want to have SAT WORDS on the SAT. It is no place for them. They should be locked away and forgotten. Goodbye, “deprecatory” and “membranous.” Hello, “synthesis” and “empirical.” Even that’s too much, in my opinion. Why learn any words that aren’t just “synergy,” over and over again? It’s a great all-purpose word that you can use in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the home. Synergy! Never leave home without it! Forget “pleonasm” and “squaloid.” Who do you think you are, William F. Buckley? Learning words is for people who don’t have games on their phones to keep them occupied on winter evenings.

The test will now include excerpts from important source documents — the Constitution, or Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Testing actual information? Still? What is this, 1600? Not the score, the year.

At least the SAT got rid of the penalty for guessing. Rewarding people for not volunteering an answer when they know they don’t have one is a very poor idea. The supply of Strong Opinions About the Situation in Ukraine would dry up in a day.

Maybe I am a little bitter about the change, because I was part of the goshforsaken class of 2006 when nobody knew what standard the colleges would want to look at, so we were forced to take every available SAT — the 1600-point one, with analogies and no essays. The 2400-point version, with the essay section where you could literally cite ANYTHING regardless of the truth of your assertion. The 83-point SAT, something that a guy in a trench coat outside my high school was offering and my mother sent me to eight classes to prepare for. The 1600-pointer was the most useful, because you can use that one to compare your performance to the SAT scores of celebrities.

And I was even a good test-taker! This brought me no boons. If you do poorly on the SAT, you can go on and have a nice life. If you do well on the SAT, you spend the rest of your days awkwardly attempting to work your score into the conversation, and it never goes over quite as well as you hoped. All the skills on which you were tested are active hindrances to real success. Give me a passage to analyze for grammatical errors, and I instantly pinpoint the one “who/whom” confusion. Unfortunately this habit, like a useless and frankly somewhat inconvenient superpower, does not disappear after the SAT, and it greatly limits your invitations to parties. Setting up the explanation that when you point out triumphantly that “THERE SHOULD BE A SEMICOLON HERE” you will be rewarded for it is a cruel joke to play on a person at a formative stage of life.

Basically, the SAT used to test things like grammar, reading ability and the size of your vocabulary, and possessing grammar, a vocabulary and reading ability are active hazards these days, at college if not in the world at large. It tests less, now. But it should test far, far less. The test really should just consist of one question: “CAN YOU USE GOOGLE?” with a follow-up, “ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY SOMEBODY A GROTESQUE AMOUNT OF MONEY TO SPEND FOUR YEARS DRINKING?” If the answer to both questions is “Yes,” you are all set for a great college career.