17 March 2011

A response to the infamous “reality television” SAT essay prompt

For anyone not familiar with the controversy, the full question, which was given to about a third of test-takers on Saturday 3/12, is as follows (from the website of 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? 

If you just glance at the question, it’s pretty easy to understand why people are so outraged. But it’s not actually that simple.

Part of the problem is that many people unfamiliar with the SAT are unaware of the difference in importance between the background to the prompt and the prompt itself (in bold). The background is designed to explain the question, to put it in some context; it is not intended to limit the kind of responses that test-takers can provide. In fact, it can be ignored completely with no ill consequences. If the background consists of a quote by a famous physicist, for example, students are not expected to know anything about physics to answer the question. The same holds true here.

The question alone, when read separately from the prompt, is actually a “serious” question about the relationship between art and life, truth and fiction, and the moral role of entertainment in a society. It of course lends itself quite well to examples about reality TV, but not to the exclusion of other examples, even literary or historical ones. If you look closely at the wording of the question, it asks about “forms of entertainment that show,” not television shows. Someone  could easily write about  Michael Moore’s documentaries, or Norman Rockwell’s idealized images of American society, or Jenny Fields’ autobiography in John Irving’s The World According to Garp (one of my all-time favorite books, and one that works for just about every imaginable SAT essay). It takes a little more thought than usual to come with examples (no, you can’t just stick MLK or Hitler into this one), but it can certainly be done.

For the record, the College Board has asked questions that can only be answered with contemporary examples before: “Should people make more of an effort to be involved in their communities?” is one. “Is creativity needed more in the world today?” is another. No one ever harangued the SAT for pandering to kids who do a lot of community service on the one hand or a lot of art on the other. Though I’ll readily admit that this isn’t quite the same thing, when you consider only the question itself, it’s not all that far off either.

I’m not quite letting the College Board off the hook here, though; even if the question alone was acceptable, the construction of the overall prompt is just a bit too narrow for comfort. It is, after all, phrased in such a way that people unfamiliar with what the College Board expects of them might feel obligated to write about reality TV, even if that’s not the case at all. It’s one thing to include a quote by a physicist; it’s something very different to explicitly refer to popular culture, which most teenagers are in fact familiar with. Someone who doesn’t know much about reality TV or the SAT might therefore be inclined to panic, even if he or she is perfectly capable of coming up with one or two decent examples under different, less stressful circumstances.

So yes, obviously someone who spends a lot of time watching reality TV is going to have more examples immediately spring to mind than someone who barely watches television. That said, however, the former does not necessarily have an advantage; test-takers who spend most of their time watching reality television are probably going to have far weaker writing skills than those who spend most of their time reading, say, Dickens. And competent writing and an organized structure with decent examples will always win out over great examples combined with a chaotic structure and sloppy writing.

But I still think that the College Board screwed up on this one. By attempting to be relevant, however misguidedly so, the College Board has, incredibly enough, made itself an even larger object of scorn. The next time it dips its toe into the arena of the culture wars, it needs to do so a little more carefully. Or better yet, play it safe and keep asking about the nature of heroism and the existence of free will.

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