Reality SATs ?

March 20, 2011

Taking the SAT test is one of the traditional rites of spring for high school students.  It seems that, in a test administration given last weekend, the essay question on some students’ exams has generated some controversy.  (For readers of my approximate vintage who may not know, the SAT was changed in 2005 to include an essay section.  We didn’t have that; you are not having a middle-aged moment.)  It seems that the essay question, or “prompt”, was related to the recent rapid growth in popularity of “reality television” shows.

Many of the negative comments from parents about this question ran more or less along the lines of, “My kid is serious and works hard; (s)he doesn’t have time to watch reality TV.”    There were also similar comments from students.  The College Board, which administers the SAT, said that the prompt contained sufficient information to write a top-scoring essay, and did not require any detailed knowledge of reality TV shows.  Here is the actual question from the exam, as quoted in the Washington Post:

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?

In this particular case, I think the College Board has the better argument.  Recall that the purpose of the essay section is to evaluate the student’s ability to formulate an argument, and express it in writing.  I certainly don’t watch reality TV shows — I can’t stand them — but I think I could write an acceptable essay on the basis of this question.  (In fact, I did talk about them a little in the context of the Colorado “Balloon Boy” back in the fall of 2009.)  I also have a bit of difficulty believing that there are high school students leading such sheltered lives that they have never seen one of these shows.   What I find a little disturbing about some of the complaints is the underlying notion that the essay had to be mainly an exercise in regurgitating facts, rather than an expression of ideas.

Alexandra Petri has an amusing blog post at the Washington Post site, on how this will affect the obsessive parent.

Where Does Science Come From?

March 20, 2011

The “Physics arXiv” blog at Technology Review has an interesting report on a new look at the geographic distribution of scientific research [abstract, PDF available], carried out by Lutz Bornmann at the Max Planck Society in Munich and Loet Leydesdorff at the University of Amsterdam.  The two researchers started with bibliometric data, giving the number of times scientific papers were cited in other research work, and combined them in a “Mash-up” with Google Maps, giving a graphic display of where scientific innovation occurs (to the extent that the citation data captures this, of course)    They also compute a simple measure of the proportion of widely-cited papers (defined as the top decile in citations) to the total number of papers cited.  They have produced maps for papers in physics, chemistry, and psychology; dark green circles show locations with a high proportion of widely-cited papers relative to the total.  The size of the circle is proportional to the total number of papers.  (The initial view of these shows the whole world, which makes seeing details difficult, but they can be zoomed and panned, like any Google map.)

The results don’t reveal anything drastically different from what one might have expected.  There are some places, not especially large (e.g., Cambridge, England and Princeton, NJ) that produce a higher than expected proportion of widely-cited papers.  On the other hand, Moscow produces a lot of physics papers (big circle), but a lower than expected number of widely-cited ones (red circle).

The citation data, of course, is certainly not the last word on the relative importance of scientific research.  But it is interesting to see the data presented in this way.  If nothing else, it seems to suggest that the fear that the US and Europe are somehow “falling behind” in research is a bit overblown.

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