Stephen Kent

It has been some time since I took the SAT college admissions test. It was easier then. For one thing, a lot less history had occurred and there were far fewer presidents.

At that time, prior to being an acronym, it was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is an accurate name, as it gave strong evidence of my lack of aptitude for mathematics, a conclusion not surprising to my engineer father who feared I would starve if I had to handle more than algebra I to earn a living.

The SAT, which has been around since 1926, has been seen as gateway or a barrier to college admission. Each year more than 1.5 million high school students take the exam. Now, the College Board, which administers the test, has made major changes in the SAT. It has seen fit to make the written essay no longer mandatory.

This should be of some concern to those who value certain skills — such as thinking.

The essay, said Kathleen Parker, a columnist for The Washington Post, “was a way of determining whether a student can compose a coherent sentence — you know: subject, verb, all that stuff — not to mention whether one can think. If a person can’t write a series of sentences to express a cogent thought, does that person really qualify for a college education? For what purpose?”

Writing is little more than the product of thought. Anything that can encourage — if not celebrate — it should be admired. Most choices in life are not multiple choices but require some thought and analysis.

John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and diplomat, concluded his autobiography with these words that I’ve kept above my keyboard for years:

“To write adequately one must know, above all, how bad are one’s first drafts. They are bad because the need to combine composition with thought, both in their own way taxing, leads initially to a questionable, even execrable result. With each revision the task eases, the product improves. Eventually there can be clarity and perhaps even grace.”

The College Board also plans to do away with some vocabulary words such as “egalitarian,” “prevaricator” and “sagacious” in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job.

“No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down,” says the College Board.

This may be appropriate in a Twitter world of 140-character bursts of expression. I may be looking at this from a professional bias, but denying the use of the perfect word is limiting the richness of our language.

The College Board also eliminated the penalty for a wrong answer on multiple-choice questions. The change is meant to encourage students to “take risks” and “give it their best shot.”

Eliminating the consequences of poor choices seems to be, at best, imprudent. The republic will not crumble as a result of these changes. But in a drive for equality, is the answer to lower the bar, de-emphasize thinking and abandon perfectly good words?

To its credit, the College Board said every income-eligible student who takes the SAT will receive four fee waivers to apply to college, “removing a cost barrier faced especially by low- and middle-income students.”

It’s too bad that students may lack the proficiency of vocabulary to appreciate this egalitarian effort by the College Board to assist them in becoming sagacious.

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Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: considersk@gmail.com.