SAT reality TV question’s full prompt is absurd, and not because it’s about reality TV

The question about reality TV on last Saturday’s SAT exam has prompted minor uproar from students on a message board now has the media in a minor frenzy, because, of course, there’s nothing else to cover right now. While I’ve argued that the topic of the question was perfectly legitimate, the writing of the question itself was pretty horrendous for an organization that suggests it’s capable of measuring students’ ability to be successful in college. (Disclosure: For two summers, I worked for the College Board scoring AP English exam essays. I also teach at a university where standardized test scores are an optional part of the application process but are required for merit scholarships.)

College Board communications VP Peter Kauffmann told The New York Times that “everything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt.” And by that he meant the answer, because the College Board actually answered its own question in the prompt. Genius. Here’s the whole prompt, as reproduced in The Washington Post’s story:

“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?”

With all due respect, who the fuck wrote this question, and how are they still employed?

It was apparently tested repeatedly, and that is appalling. In a statement, also reproduced by the Post, the College Board insists that “The central task of the SAT essay is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position.”

Okay, great, but you can’t answer the question and then expect them to be able to take a side. The prompt takes a side, insisting reality shows mislead people. Even the question itself, with the use of the obnoxious phrase “so-called,” makes it clear that there’s a right and wrong answer here. It’s like asking, “Do people benefit from taking useless exams, or are they all wasting their money on a test that’s uninterested in actually measuring their knowledge and skills and just wants to maintain people’s dependence on it?”

The most appalling thing about this is what a terrible example of strong writing this prompt is. In addition, while the paragraph’s beginning is fine, the last two sentences are ridiculous oversimplifications of something that’s rather complex. And who at the College Board decided that reality shows are universally misleading? And that shows with challenges aren’t authentic? What stupidity.

Of course, we have scripted and fake reality series such as The Hills and Joan Rivers’ WE tv show. But while series such as Survivor or Top Chef construct an artificial context in which people interact, that doesn’t make what happens inauthentic, any more than the way people behave at work or at family gatherings is inauthentic because they don’t act the same way when they’re with their friends. And while there are interesting discussions and complex arguments that we can have about how different layers of the production and post-production affect authenticity, reducing all those arguments to broad summary is not the way to have that discussion.

Should we really be demonstrating oversimplification in an exam that’s supposed to measure critical thinking? And how can the SAT test abilities that its own staff is not able to demonstrate?

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