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WOSTER: SAT changes might not be good

I never took the SAT exam before I enrolled at college. I took the ACT.

What's the difference? Beats me. The SAT is in the news because it apparently will change some vocabulary requirements and make the essay writing portion optional instead of mandatory. The changes are supposed to make the test more like what students learn.

The changes, especially the change to an optional essay, puzzle me. I haven't been to school in a while, but I'd expect high school seniors to recognize some big words and to be able to sit down and write a short essay based on a prompt, or concept provided by the test-makers. Apparently my expectations are unrealistic, although I didn't find the exact method students may use to duck the essay writing. I'm guessing quite a few will take that option.

It's been so long since I took any sort of standardized test that I lack standing to comment with background and knowledge. However, in this age of talk radio, blogs and anonymous posts on Internet sites, not knowing anything doesn't seem to be a barrier to speaking one's mind.

Having gone the full disclosure route and told you I'm talking beyond my knowledge level, I'll simply say I would be cautious of changes in a college-entrance exam that reduce at all the degree of difficulty. I'd especially be cautious of changes that allow high-school seniors to move on to college without demonstrating competency in putting thoughts on paper or computer screen in a coherent, organized way. It doesn't have to be Herman Melville or Saul Bellow quality. Any 18-year-old thinking seriously of college might reasonably be expected to be capable of writing a few sentences that hang together, that make sense and that contain, oh, nouns and verbs and that other boring stuff.

I also acknowledge that I tend to think writing is something that can be mastered by most people. It's about all I've done in my professional life, so I'm probably biased. And in fairness, I've known people who struggle with writing. Sometimes it's because they believe the written product must be lofty and polished and deathly serious. I have had friends who thought that. They are great oral storytellers, some of them, but they shut down at the sight of a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on an empty computer screen. Perhaps if they'd had more practice earlier in life?

I used to speak to groups of high-school students. When I did, I would promise them that if they could craft coherent sentences, they could always find a job. I'm no longer certain that is true, but it should be. I do remain convinced that the ability to communicate is essential to a good life. All it takes for communication is that it be understandable -- not fancy, not filled with $2 words, just understandable. That simply means an idea or thought is offered in such a way that the reader or listener grasps what the writer or speaker is saying. Often -- usually, in fact -- the most effective way to make that happen is with short sentences and small words. Ernest Hemingway. I rest my case.

That doesn't mean young people should be protected from unfamiliar words, it seems to me. I'm not sure what vocabulary changes are planned for the SAT, but I can't see how a student would be permanently damaged if he or she encountered some unfamiliar words. Perhaps I'm being simplistic? I'm not the subject-matter expert here.

As I said, I've never taken the SAT exam. Two classmates and I did take the ACT exam the winter of 1961-62. We drove to Mitchell way too early on a Saturday morning and took the test in an overheated classroom at Dakota Wesleyan University. It took quite a while. It was rather stressful, mostly because it took quite a while.

I don't recall the essay portion or the math or the vocabulary sections. I remember marking answers with a No. 2 lead pencil. I never learned my score. It never occurred to me to ask. It never occurred to me to wonder if the test was fair.

That was long ago and maybe in another galaxy.