Reality TV and the SAT: Did students miss the point of the essay question?

Students, parents, and school officials are crying foul over an essay question on last Saturday's SAT college admissions test, in which test-takers were asked to consider the merits, if any, of reality television.

"I know basically nothing about reality TV, so I just had to talk about the few shows that I did know about and their effects on long-term mentality. Ugh," one student wrote on the discussion boards at College Confidential.

Another student quipped: "i wrote about Man vs. Wild and MTV 'made.' One of my friends who is reallllly smart doesn't have cable, so i wonder how it fared for him."

But people who are outraged about the issue may be missing the point: The essay is supposed to evaluate the test-taker's writing skills, not his or her knowledge of a topic. To that end, there was more than enough information provided in the question prompt for students to pick a side-you didn't need to watch "Jersey Shore" or "The Bachelor" in order to answer it.

Here's the actual essay 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?"
Not every test taker received the same essay prompt; some opened up their tests to find a question about whether photography represents real life of just a photographer's point of view. Students have 25 minutes to complete the essay, which counts for 30 percent of the overall writing-section score (grammar questions count for the other 70 percent). The writing section was added in 2005 and is worth a total of 800 points, bringing the highest possible SAT score up to 2,400.

"The central task of the SAT essay is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position," Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for operations and the general manager of the SAT Program at the College Board, said in a statement. "If presented with a topic about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, a good writer could compose a strong essay without ever having reached the summit of Mount Everest."

"We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs," Bunin said. "However, we have found from our pretesting that students not only grasp but are quite interested in the underlying issues covered in the prompt: the effects of television on society; the desire for fame and celebrity on the part of "ordinary people"; the authenticity and value of various "realistic" representations (an issue central to the study of painting, film, drama and literature)."

Perhaps students, having spent their high school years taking standardized test after standardized test, couldn't see that there's no one correct answer to the essay question. Or maybe the glow of Snooki's tan blinded them to the fact that the essay prompt wasn't about specific reality TV shows, but about authenticity and deception.

In a SAT guide posted at College Confidential, Silverturtle, a senior member form Illinois, points out that "thoughtfulness and clarity of conception" don't matter much when it comes to the SAT essay section.

"The graders will spend about two minutes (at most) on each essay, and the result is a rather shallow and formulaic analysis of your writing," Silverturtle writes. "They do, after all, have to get through hundreds of thousands of essays within a couple weeks."

But maybe it's a moot point, anyway: In 2007, The College Board admitted that, according to its own research, 56 percent of 1,000 or so four-year colleges ignore the essay section of the SAT during the admissions process.

"This is not great writing," Deborah Shaver, the director of admissions at Smith College, told the Boston Globe. "These aren't higher-level learning measures."

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