It’s not bad enough that teens freak out at the mere mention of SATs. Lots and lots of money gets spent on fancy test prep classes. Practice books are purchased (sometimes many of them). With any luck, hours of studying and practice test are completed. After all of that, students take their seat at the test center stuffed to bursting with critical reasoning skills, and confront an essay question about—wait for it—reality TV!?! What the…?
That’s how it went on March 12, 2011. I first heard about this from SuzyQ, who took the test that day. Little did I realize, this essay prompt would become big news. The New York Times ran a story about the erupting controversy, and The Washington Post covered it as well. And the discussion boards at College Confidential are loaded with questions from panicky teens wondering if they even came close to hitting the topic. All of the fuss revolves around the issue of whether the prompt, in assuming that all students are familiar with reality TV, handicaps those who don’t watch it. Here is the prompt:
“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?
“Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”
Now, the whole point of the essay section, which was added in 2005, is to test a student’ s ability to put forth a coherent argument in writing, not to ascertain whether he or she answers a particular essay question correctly. I think we all get that. Given the time constraints (25 minutes to plan, write, and proofread the essay), though, a student with little to no experience with the subject matter could certainly be at a disadvantage scrambling to come up with examples to illustrate his point.
Most test prep guides and classes instruct students to prepare some examples from history or literature that can be used to illustrate several major themes: Churchill or Washington on leadership, Edison or da Vinci on creativity, Atticus Finch or Gandhi on justice. So where do you go with the reality TV question? If you read some of the discussion board posts, you find that kids were frantically trying to apply anything they had heard of in history classes (like yellow journalism in the Spanish-American War or propaganda in the World Wars), almost as though they couldn’t believe the question was really about the reality crap on television. Other kids posted about wasting so much time trying to come up with any examples because they don’t watch much TV, what with all of the studying they do.
The comments from the College Board in defense of the prompt, went like this:
We found from our pretesting that the larger issues implicit in the prompt were wide-ranging enough to engage all students, even those who lacked familiarity with particular reality television programs.
“Larger issues”??? What larger issues? The question asks students to analyze reality entertainment. I would hardly call that a “larger issue” to begin with. And if a kid doesn’t watch TV, what reality entertainment does that leave? If you ask me, the key to this guy’s statement is, “engage all students” (emphasis mine). This is just another example of the College Board dumbing down the entrance exam in an attempt to be “fair.” Apparently it’s more fair to assume that all students will have seen some reality TV and have opinions about it, but not all will have any ideas about patience, integrity, ambition, progress, justice, etc. Is it fair to assume that all of those TV watchers will make the best college students?
So SuzyQ has had rather miniscule exposure to reality TV. We shall see where that leaves her in terms of her score. I guess it’s some consolation that most colleges basically disregard the essay score and require their own essay with their application. I’m sure, though, that the SAT scorers are having all kinds of fun reading teenagers’ deep thoughts on American Idol and Jersey Shore.