The Evolution of Language: Will the new SAT reflect it?

The importance of literacy in our society is reflected by it being constantly measured and advocated. The principal American measure of verbal competency is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which serves as a vehicle for students to break into the post-agrarian economy by gaining access to the educational institutions that prepare them for the careers in this economy. The test periodically changes its format, which will happen once again in 2016.  Changing the types of words used for vocabulary section is part of the proposed change. Let’s take a look at whether this change is warranted.

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Some historical context is useful to examine the evolution of language and its impact on social mobility. In any dynamic system, in our case the literate population, the addition of new inputs (people) changes said system. According to Our World Data, in the period from 1870 to 2003, literacy rates in the United States rose from 80% to 99%. This period more than covers the transition from agrarian to post-agrarian society.

The decline of the agrarian economy in the United States and the rise of global markets marked a shift for Americans toward service and business services as career paths. The children and grandchildren of former farmers consequently seek careers where communication and numerical literacy are barriers to entry. The decrease in demand for agricultural labor has created the necessity to educate the would-be laborers to compete in the new economies.

Comparisons can be drawn with information on how higher literacy has brought about change in word usage over time. So, by extracting some words from an online study guide, I wanted to see if there were incongruencies between the words on which students are tested, and words to which they are exposed.

Google Ngram is an effective and free way to research this; it lets users scour the Google Books database to ascertain the frequency that words and phrases appear in publication.

Some examples: the word ‘harangue’ was used approximately six times more often in 1897 than in the present time; ‘hoary’ is used a third as much now as it was in 1870. And predictably, the use of the term ‘Google’ skyrockets from 1997 to 2008. Not every word in the study guide is like this; some words seem to have maintained similar usages. Others, like ‘portend,’ go in and out of style.

This information, though small and brief, supports the change or audit of that portion of the exam. Fundamental changes in language happen in an increasingly changing economy, with its perceptually endless technological growth. Perhaps in the future the exam, and others like it, will be altered so that it won’t have to be audited every decade or even sooner to accommodate the world at present. I suspect that by drawing upon real-time sources, we can more precisely assess the competency and ability of high school students.