On Wednesday, the College Board released more information on what its revamped SAT will look like come the spring of 2016. Among changes that include the elimination of the essay portion, one of the more dramatic alterations comes from its reworking of the old, familiar SAT vocabulary questions. In the new SAT world, obscure words like "prevaricator," and "maladroit," are gone. They'll be replaced with more "high utility" words that the test makers believe students will encounter in the wild.
Here's an example of the sort of question you won't see anymore after 2016:
Just as sloth is the mark of the idler, ____ is
the mark of the ____.
The answer is (B).
Basically, the SAT is basing its new approach on a three-tier system of rating words, produced by academics at the University of Pittsburgh. Tier One words are commonly encountered words you'd know just from being an English speaker, probably. Tier Three words are obscure, discipline-specific words like, "Buddhism" or "isotope," along with other words that "are too rare to be found with any frequency in written text." Tier Two words are the "high utility" ones. Specifically, the College Board notes, the middle tier refers to “words that are of high utility for mature language users and are found across a variety of domains." In other words: commonly-used words, but not the super easy ones.
The approach is supposed to back students off of a memorization-based approach for the SAT vocabulary questions, epitomized by the all-too-familiar SAT words flash cards. Here's their explanation for how the new section will be different:
It would be a mistake to conflate frequency with ease; the level of command of these more frequent words required by the exam will sometimes be very high. Students will encounter words in challenging passages and must read and understand them in context. The exam will assess an in-depth command of words and their multiple meanings and require sensitivity to context.
So students prepping for the new vocab tests will have to learn a new test-taking trick for this section. Instead of plugging in a memorized definition, test-takers will read a short passage and answer questions about a "tier two" word used in context. The College Board provided this as a sample question:
[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering
of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger
cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.
Adapted from Richard Florida, The Great Reset.
As used in line 55, “intense” most nearly means
"While students may frequently use the word 'intense' to describe personalities or emotions," the College Board explains, "the context of this sentence requires students to recognize that “intense” can also mean 'concentrated.'" The SAT referred to another possible example of this context-based approach to vocabulary testing in the SAT's Reading Section: the different ways in which Lincoln uses the word “dedicate” in the Gettysburg Address. That specific example, by the way, is also used in a Common Core teaching unit on the famous speech.