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.