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Posted at 02:35 PM ET, 03/15/2011

SAT question on reality TV stirs controversy

An essay question about the value of reality television shows that appeared on the SAT college entrance exam given last Saturday has sparked a controversy about whether it was culturally insensitive.

The question, according to the College Board, doesn’t specifically mention Snooki or the Kardashians or Top Chef. Here is the full 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 d ancing 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 College Board, which owns the SAT, says the prompt offers enough information to allow anybody to properly answer the question. (The full College Board response is below.) But some students, parents and schools officials are complaining that the question is asking about reality television, and assumes that all students:

*have a television

*watch reality television

*watch enough reality television to distinguish between them

One Montgomery County father, who asked not to be identified because his son would be furious, said his son studies too hard to watch any television. “I’m proud he doesn’t watch television and then he goes into the one test that really counts and he gets pummeled,” he said.

The New York Daily News quoted one honors student at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts as saying, “”I guess the kids who watch crap TV did well. I was completely baffled; I watched ‘American Idol’ four years ago.”

But, whether or not one thinks the SAT or any college entrance exam is a valid way to measure a student’s worth (I don’t), it seems possible to satisfactorily write an essay off the given prompt without having ever watched a reality show. An essay could say, for example, that television shows purporting to be realistic but aren’t could, in some cases, be harmful, because they could lead people to believe that certain behaviors could lead to specific results when they can’t, or, alternatively, that everybody knows television is simply entertainment.

The real question is whether an intimate knowledge of reality shows would give an essay-writer an advantage in presenting examples and detail. The essay prompt should have made it clear that the students could get full value for an essay whether or not he/she watch “Jersey Shore” and would not be judged on the basis of their knowledge of Snooki and The Situation’s relationship.

Not all students who took the SAT on Saturday had this essay question — there was no alternative — because the College Board, which owns the SAT gives different test versions on the same day.

Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, said that essay prompts are written by teachers from high schools and colleges, then pretested with students and then reviewed “to ensure that they are easily understood and that each student has an opportunity to respond, and is wide-ranging enough for a student to demonstrate their writing skills.”

A more typical essay prompt is this sample on the College Board’s Web site (where you can see actual responses assigned points, from 1, the lowest, to 6, the highest):

“Even scientists know that absolute objectivity has yet to be attained. It’s the same for absolute truth. But, as many newspaper reporters have observed, the idea of objectivity as a guiding principle is too valuable to be abandoned. Without it, the pursuit of knowledge is hopelessly lost.

“Adapted from “Focusing Our Values,” Nieman Reports

“Assignment: Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial? Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.”

Meanwhile, one student who took the test Saturday and got the prompt doesn’t watch much television, and no reality shows, so wound up writing about a scripted comedy show. How many points will that be worth?

Here is the official College Board response to the controversy, from Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of College Connection and Success:

“The central task of the SAT essay is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position. Questions raised about a recent SAT essay prompt miss this basic point and confuse the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. 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. Using a popular culture reference is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students.

“To be clear, each SAT essay prompt undergoes extensive pretesting before appearing on an actual SAT. Hundreds of sample essays are written by students from diverse backgrounds and evaluated by high school and college faculty members to determine each prompt’s validity. Our pretesting of the essay prompt in question gave us confidence that the prompt would be accessible to test-takers and would generate a variety of responses articulating different positions on the issue.

“We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs. 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).

“We attempt in our prompt development to present issues of particular relevance to students’ lives rather than complex abstractions that inhibit expression; this is a writing test, and our primary goal is to develop prompts that generate good student writing. However, we recognize that students’ experiences vary widely, and thus strive to present issues that are wide-ranging enough so that each and every student will have relevant “reading, study, experience, or observation” from which to draw. 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.

“Here is the full 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?

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By  |  02:35 PM ET, 03/15/2011

 
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