SAT asks for essay on reality TV

Asked to write an essay about reality TV on last week’s SAT exam, students are complaining that the prompt — “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” — favors TV junkies. From the New York Times:

“This is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched TV,” one test-taker wrote on Saturday on the Web site College Confidential, under the user name “littlepenguin.”

“I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively,” he wrote, invoking the 19th-century social reformer. “I kinda want to cry right now.”

The goal of the essay prompt is to “give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” not to show off their knowledge, said Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program.

This particular prompt, Ms. Garcia said, was intended to be relevant and to engage students, and had gone through extensive pre-testing with students and teachers. “It’s really about pop culture as a reference point that they would certainly have an opinion on,” she added.

An exam has to “engage” test takers?

The full prompt contained “everything you need to write the essay,” said Peter Kauffmann, vice president of communications for the College Board.

Students read:

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?

The test designers apparently see writing as an isolated skill with no content knowledge required. The student who’s never watched American Idol, The Biggest Loser, Jersey Shore or Kourtney & Kim Take New York can’t cite examples to prove a point or use details to enliven his writing. He has to hope that Jacob Riis doesn’t cost him too many points.

If I faced this prompt — and I’m thankful my test-taking days are over — I’d have very little to say. I don’t think “most people” believe reality shows are authentic and I don’t think it matters. Do people benefit? No. Are they harmed? No.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I, too, don’t watch TV much and don’t watch these shows. So, what could I say? Not much, and that is very sad.

    This question looks like more dumbing down of America–and a wake-up call for the pitfalls of designing questions by committees that have lost common sense. As well, this question is certainly not culturally neutral, and I thought our students were entitled to at least that! Would love to hear other comments!

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    “It’s really about pop culture as a reference point that they would certainly have an opinion on,” said the executive director of the SAT program, who apparently doesn’t understand the word “certainly.”

    Say that 90% of the students have an opinion of reality TV. That makes 10% who are in the same boat as me, Joanne and Miriam: we don’t watch reality TV, we don’t think about reality TV, we don’t think it’s important.

    All of the SAT essay prompts are invitations to shallowness and glibness instead of good writing, but this one is egregious.

  3. It’s worse than that.  It’s aiming to boost the scores of those who have knowledge of and opinions about reality TV (meaning they spend their time watching it) instead of those who substitute meatier pursuits.  It’s another test designed to “help close the gap” by dis-favoring the most studious.

  4. It’s another test designed to “help close the gap” by dis-favoring the most studious.

    That’s what bothers me. After the decades of whining about the “cultural coding” of the SAT, that the CB would do this? And that they’d know that no one would seriously complain because, after all, it’s just mostly Asians who would be affected? It’s very annoying.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Oh for Pete’s sake — essays have to be about SOMETHING. If you’ve got a pulse, you know a little bit about reality TV, even if you’ve never watched a single episode.

    These aren’t deep, meaningful papers. As the Cardinal said — they are supposed to be glib little exercises in formulaic production, nothing more.

    Any whining about this is really unseemly and ill-taken, at least on this front.

  6. Fortunately, this was the essay part of the SAT, the pointless section almost entirely ignored by the admissions committee.

  7. There is no essay part of the SAT. It’s part of the writing test, and can’t be “ignored” independent of the writing score. The UC system requires it, and the CSU system uses it as a proxy for remediation placement.

  8. If essays have to be about SOMETHING, then why not make them about current events, or literature, or SOMETHING about which we actually WANT college-bound students to have an opinion?

  9. Ninety percent of the time, I agree with Joanne and her audience. Let me play devil’s advocate, though, on this one. It seems most people here would be happier to see a prompt on Shakespeare or Plato. Suppose, I haven’t read them. Or, maybe the prompt is on the French Revolution, and I am not a particularly strong history student. In both of these examples, I’d really struggle on the essay. Plus, I’d likely find these more content-specific questions in other parts of the test, so why should I have to do double duty on them?

    The writing test should be about writing, as the SAT exec says; it should not be about content knowledge. Kauffmann, too, is spot on, when he says the prompt provides everything someone needs to write the essay. Any competent writer can do well on this prompt.

    If anything, I’d say it’s too easy. You give an opinion one way or the other, and pull information from the prompt and stick it in your essay. Sadly, this is what standardized testing is doing to writing. It’s all about grabbing a sentence or two from a prompt and/or a reading selection and repeating them in a response; there’s no real thinking involved.

    I think we’d all agree that whether it’s pop culture or auto mechanics, what we’d really like to see is some critical thinking. Too bad those making the assessments don’t feel this way.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Crimson Wife –

    Technically, “reality television” is a current event.

  11. It seems most people here would be happier to see a prompt on Shakespeare or Plato.

    Don’t presume. I don’t know about others, but I have been an SAT test coach for eight years, and I’m extremely familiar with the typical essay question. The typical essay question does not involve literature and rarely involves current events.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    Here are some typical SAT essay topics from past tests:

    http://professionals.collegeboard.com/testing/sat-reasoning/prep/essay-prompts
    http://www.onlinemathlearning.com/sat-essay-prompts.html
    http://www.everything-about-college.com/SAT-essay-prompts.html

    Notice that other than the reality TV one, they are general, not requiring particular knowledge about some aspect of popular culture. Nary an essay about Plato or Shakespeare. One of these things is not like the others: common sense, solitude, heroism, courage, materialism, reality TV.

  13. If you read “The Hunger Games”, you could have some fun material for this essay, so it isn’t just about TV.

    My son took this SAT and he included his thoughts about the show of Henri Cartier-Bresson photos we saw at SFMOMA in January.

  14. Mark Roulo says:

    I think this may be a very good example of a case where a little bit of test prep can go a long way. My understanding is that the essays need not be factually correct and that it is perfectly permissible to make up facts to support your point. If so, a few sample rounds of the kids learning to BS about something that they know nothing about would make harmless that some of these kids had never seen a reality TV show.

    Example prompt to teach BS-ing: Do you think the Lopez War was a source of more or less immigration?

    I’d bet that most kids (heck, most adults) have never heard of the Lopez War. Fine! Who cares? Make up historical facts and statistics as you like. That’s the point.

  15. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Yes, the essay can’t be factchecked and yes, you can (and often should) invent things. But invention needs to happen in the context of something you have an opinion about: courage, choices, education, whatever.

    This essay question requires you to have an opinion about something culturally specific, and that should never be the case on one of these tests.

    And as I’ve said, I’m a test prep coach so I know exactly what is involved, and exactly what the questions are like, and exactly what they are not supposed to be like.

    My son took this SAT and he included his thoughts about the show of Henri Cartier-Bresson photos we saw at SFMOMA in January.

    That’s because he got the other essay question, which was about reality vs. photography (something that was probably true about the Jacob Riis student as well). He did not get the reality TV question–or if he did, the answer was probably off topic.

  16. If you read “The Hunger Games”, you could have some fun material for this essay, so it isn’t just about TV.

    What about students who neither watch reality TV nor read “popcorn” YA novels? If my DD had been old enough to be taking the SAT as her talent search test rather than the ACT, she would have been screwed. We don’t have cable/satellite and get no broadcast reception. The only thing she’s seen that would be remotely relevant to this prompt is that Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” video showing the all the makeup and airbrushing going into a fashion magazine shoot.

  17. That should read the EXPLORE, not the ACT in the first sentence.

  18. Cranberry says:

    If a student had made a habit of reading the newspaper, he would not have found the prompt troublesome. Newspapers are full of articles about reality TV.

    This last part of the prompt could have been expanded to fit any work of human entertainment: “Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

    I suspect the students complaining panicked at a prompt mentioning TV.

  19. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think Cranberry has made the point I was trying to make (about anyone having a pulse knowing at least a little about Reality TV) far more eloquently than I could.

    But I want to take a second to address something else CW said:

    What about students who neither watch reality TV nor read “popcorn” YA novels?

    Look, you can raise your kids Amish if you want… that’s fine. But you can’t raise them Amish and then expect them to get into an Electrical Engineering program. Likewise, if you want them to be able to function in an academic setting in this society, they need to be informed about the world — and that includes needing to know at least something about the culture. It’s not enough to sit in your cave reading Marcus Aurelius in the original Greek when you’re applying to 21st Century American colleges. You have to live in this century — even if you do spend a lot of time studying other centuries and “timeless” classics of literature, etc.

    Movies, music, books, and yes… television (wince) are an important part of being in this society.

  20. Newspapers are full of articles about reality TV.

    The “dumbing down” of newspapers is why we have a subscription to The Economist instead. I can’t recall any references to reality TV in that publication.

    It’s a terrible prompt because it condones the worst of American pop culture, and I find it very disturbing that so many folks are defending it here and on the New York Times website.

  21. But you can’t raise them Amish and then expect them to get into an Electrical Engineering program.

    Funny you should mention EE as that’s my DH’s undergrad major. Math and science ability, skills, and knowledge are what counts in STEM- not knowledge of the exploits of Paris Hilton and the Kardashian (sp?) sisters.

    We do actually watch DVD’s of movies and certain television series. Just not stupid “reality” shows.

  22. Cranberry says:

    Have you looked at any college course catalogs recently?

    The SAT writing exam is not required to check for a student’s opinion about middlebrow culture. The essay is only a small part of the score for the writing section, which is not nearly as important as the math and reading sections. Writing to a prompt is a specific skill which a high school student should practice, as it does help with the SAT and other standardized exams. It is not necessary to approve of the prompt.

    A Google search of The Economist brings back 1,600 hits. They have written about reality TV.

    http://www.economist.com/node/8600063
    http://www.economist.com/node/631685
    http://www.economist.com/node/13361349
    http://www.economist.com/node/3364587

  23. Jesus, what idiocy.

    Look, the issue is not what some of you think kids are supposed to know. The issue is designing a test that correctly evaluates what it is supposed to evaluate. In the case of the SAT essay, it is supposed to evaluate whether or not the student can reason in organized, written form.

    In this case, there were two essay prompts. The first was on reality TV. The second was whether or not a photograph was art or reality.

    The first required CULTURAL knowledge that was not universal. The second required knowledge of what photography was and nothing else. The questions were not equivalent and thus a student’s score would in many cases vary based on which prompt they got, rather than the quality of his or her answer.

    It has nothing to do with whether or not you personally think that the kid should know about reality TV. Those of you who are focusing on that are merely betraying that you don’t understand the meaning of validity in test construction.

    If, for example, the prompt had been on whether or not Hamlet should have taken revenge for his father’s death, the prompt would have required the student to have read Hamletn, which was not something the test was assessing for. No one–repeat, no one–cares whether you personally think that all college-bound students should have read Hamlet.

    However, had the prompt involved Hamlet, there would have been a national uproar on how the question violated the rights of our poor and underrepresented minority students, whereas this one is a minor fuss because the same people who would normally squawk are secretly glad that Asian and strong white students are disproportionately likely to be affected.

  24. I remember when there was a real flap about the word “regatta” on the SATs ( I don’t remember if it was in the analogies or not), with concomitant screams about cultural bias; as if one couldn’t learn what a regatta is from books (I did). I’m with Cal on this one; this has a disproportionate, negative impact on the most serious students. I also feel that it showcases the rejection of the idea that college admission is or should be based on serious academics. Let no one get ahead.

  25. Mom, that’s exactly right. This is the so-called regatta problem in reverse–that is, it’s affecting a different population–and unlike the regatta question, which is entirely about vocabulary, this is a genuine question about experience, which is even worse.

    The flap about regatta wasn’t actually a flap–it was Nicholas Lemann (sp) writing about the horrible SAT and its cultural bias in vocabulary. In fact, evidence shows that the socalled “cultural bias” words don’t have a wide achievement gap–but that’s what everyone fussed about because they don’t know any better.

  26. While the reality tv SAT essay topic may appear at first glance biased only to those who habitually watch reality television, it is still a broad enough topic where virtually any high school can properly answer the question.

    Here is my take on it as well via video blog:
    http://preppedandpolished.com/reality-television-sat-essay-topic-good-or-bad/

    Alexis Avila, Founder of Prepped & Polished, LLC