Language is Optional


My first thought when I head the news that the College Board and changed the vocabulary requirements and made the essay portion of the SAT optional was something like this…well, actually, pretty verbatim:

“America has…if this is even possible…become even more stupid.”

And, I’ll be honest, I still haven’t shaken that initial perspective, although I agree with other, more nuanced reactions, that the motivation behind the College Board’s changes were, at least. altruistic. And certainly there are good things attached to this overhaul, such as efforts to create opportunities for students from poor families. That said, there is so much about this that frustrates me.

I remember sitting in the SAT testing room during my senior year in high school, concerned about the competition for the colleges in which I was most interested. That stress was a real thing, and it certainly has potentially negative effects, which shouldn’t be minimized. Still, all things being equal, my experience there was similar to my experience only a few years ago when I sat for the GRE…my verbal scores were excellent, my analytical writing scores off the charts, and that saved me from the appearance of intellectual disability that would have been the result of looking at my abysmal math scores in isolation.

I just don’t get numbers, and yet I’ve managed to have a perfectly successful career, and am embarking on another. Imagine that. It’s amazing what an ability to communicate and write well can achieve.

It seems, though, that we as a country intend to produce only students that can perform mathematics and sciences. And, keeping in mind that I write code for a living, I’ve ranted on more than many occasions here about how we’re doing a monumental dis-service to our children and to our entire culture as we make our educational process progressively less literate. Now, even when the writing option for this test is taken, the focus will be objective and analytical, leaving little room for creativity and encouraging vocabulary that the student would realistically encounter in a professional setting.

Read: The limited and results-focused language of business.

So…where’s the poetry, man? What happened to one’s higher education pursuits being a time in which one can explore different disciplines and ideas, not only disciplines in which the student might be interested professionally, but also…and perhaps even especially…disciplines in which the student is merely interested? That creates a well-rounded person, a creative problem-solver, a person with some life experience. The answer to fixing our educational process isn’t rocket science. Leaving behind test-focused teaching and concentrating on an interdisciplinary approach to life would go a long way.

The College Board has failed us miserably here.

That said, though…and after my initial knee-jerk reaction above…I have to also recognize that this is a complex issue. Standardized testing, in my humble opinion, is the enemy, and placing one as a potential barrier to entry for bright, eager, and qualified students is a poor practice. When I took the GRE, a close friend who retired from a career in academia and sat on several PhD selection committees told me flatly: test results are only considered when the committee needs a reason to cut someone and can’t find anything else. I fail to see how this is useful. Multiple colleges have already made decisions to not use the SAT as a selection criterion, and this will hopefully be a continuing trend. Considering the issues raised before a student is even near being ready for college: the fact that we teach middle-schoolers calculus but not handwriting, for example…more so-called objective data interfering with the educational process at the most formative period in one’s adult life just isn’t helpful.

So, while the College Board has made an epically stupid decision this week, I’m not sure it should matter, because the SAT is…or at least should be…a red herring. Objective testing has nothing to do with educational achievement, because educational achievement…and the methods by which what one learns can lead to career success throughout life…is amazingly…well…subjective.

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