Why did David Coleman and company keep choosing “synthesis” as the word to best represent the new SAT? Argh.

If you’re unfamiliar with David Coleman, he’s one of the architects of the Common Core standards — and now he’s the guy who led the re-shaping/re-branding of the SAT. Here are the basics of the new test: back to 1600 (instead of 2400), optional essay, evidence-based reading and writing questions, etc. Ultimately the SAT — which seems a staple of life for many — had to be re-branded because (a) it had come under an insane amount of statistical/research-based criticism and (b) the ACT was beginning to surpass it as a test of record. You can get the full, in-depth story here from The New York Times. A lot of this I like. This part, for example, I super agree with:

“Whenever a question really matters in college or career, it is not enough just to give an answer,” Coleman said. “The crucial next step is to support your answer with evidence,” which allows insight into what the student actually knows. “And this change means a lot for the work students do to prepare for the exam. No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices. We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers.”

When you teach tricks as opposed to actual justification of an argument — which are common practice among tutors, who are commonly used by more affluent students — then what happens is that the attitude of figuring out shortcuts extends to college; that lessens the dynamic of classroom discussion and experience there. I’ve definitely seen that happen and been a part of that.

Two things should be worrisome, though: while it’s basically impossible in education to get people to agree on anything, the Common Core is pretty roundly criticized, and Coleman comes off like what he probably is — a brash, well-educated dude who thinks he floats above the content he works on. (Never met him, so that may be wrong, of course.) Linking him to a test that basically has been shown to prove almost nothing it’s supposed to prove maybe isn’t the best marriage, but we’ll see.

The second thing is that in every PR appearance related to the new test, when they discuss the new vocabulary approach — less esoteric words, more you-will-use-in-college words — they keep using synthesis as an example. OK. I get it. Synthesis is a relatively common word that you will hear in college, as opposed to, say, numismatist. But synthesis is also a f’n terrible word that commonly represents big business douchebaggery — it’s basically what managers say when they have no idea what they really mean to talk about or say in the current project they’re on. “What we’re going for here is synthesis, Jake.” OK. So what specifically does that mean?

Coleman spent five years at McKinsey, where I’m sure he used the word synthesis well over 1K times, so this all makes sense.

The concept of the new SAT seems great. I hope it does what it’s supposed to and eliminates the socioeconomic divide to boot. It starts rolling out in 2016.

Ted Bauer