Friday, March 18, 2011

Reality TV question on SAT

The New York Times reports that some who took the SAT last Saturday were required to write an essay in response to this question:
“How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?”
"These shows" referred to reality TV series.

If I had taken the SAT last Saturday, my entire answer would probably have been, "Not too authentic." What more is there to say, really?

Oh I know, one can always flesh out a response: believe me, I knew how to excrete enough non-nutritive filler to make a composition of any required length. That, however, is not a skill I want the SAT testing for, nor do I wish this generation of students to develop it in response to stupid questions like this one.

What some also overlook, and this would seem to include the College Board (the organization in charge of the SAT), is that the question penalizes those kids who don't watch reality TV. There are some who don't watch any TV, in fact. (I knew a fellow who grew up without watching TV. Smart as a whip, and contrary to the stereotype you probably have in mind, quite well socialized and not at all snobbish.)

The College Board's VP of communication defended the question as being self-contained enough for any student to answer. In the strictest sense he's right: the question was preceded by a one-sentence explanation of what reality TV was.

Of course, a one-sentence definition cannot acquaint the student with the range of reality TV shows, nor provide him with concrete examples to support whatever opinion he chooses to assert. Do you think a one-sentence description of a car would give you enough context to discuss the quality of its steering if you had never driven?

So this question was banal if you watch reality TV and unanswerable if you don't. That's weirdly impressive, to come up with a question that fails in multiple contexts. But the impression left is not a good one.

UPDATE: I should have linked this piece to my earlier entry on how standardized essay tests are scored. The fate of the reality-TV essays rests almost entirely on the model of acceptable responses developed by the test scorers, and that should make all of the test-takers nervous. I know there were experimental sections of the SAT in my day, and the understanding I had was that they didn't have quite the same weight as the more established parts of the test; I wonder if that's still the case, and if the College Board considers the reality-TV question experimental.

No comments:

Post a Comment