Reality TV on the SAT’s?

Here’s an interesting item from HuffPo. The following appeared as an essay question on the SAT:

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?

Quite a few people thought this question was unfair:

According to the New York Times, students expressed dismay at the question through online discussion forums like College Confidential. In a thread discussing the prompt, one student wrote, “this is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched T.V.”

Another student told the New York Daily News that she had been preparing for questions of a higher caliber. “A lot of what we did in SAT prep classes was to use historical events or literature in our essays,” she said. “I guess the kids who watch crap T.V. did well.”

The Washington Post reports that offended students complained that the question unfairly assumed that all test-takers have a television, watch reality shows and can tell such programs apart — putting students who don’t fit these assumptions at a disadvantage.

But officials from the College Board say that the question was fair, and that any student could answer it regardless of T.V.-watching habits. College Board official Laurence Bunin told the Post that the question had been selected in an attempt to relate to and engage students, and that it had garnered favorable responses in pre-tests.

I’m with the students on this one. There’s no way you can really understand what reality TV is like based on the short lead-in to the question. The question clearly gives preference to those who watch lots of trashy television.

Comments

  1. #1 feralboy12
    March 17, 2011

    2. In essay form, discuss some ideas for rescuing the castaways from Gilligan’s Island. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.

  2. #2 becca
    March 17, 2011

    Personally, I think it’s a terrible question because anyone with any sense will read this part of the prompt “Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled.” and ask “CITATION PLEASE?!!”

    Seriously who actually believes reality of reality tv is authentic?

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    March 17, 2011

    There’s also the larger argument – can ANY form of entertainment be considered “harmful”, and that can of worms is one that has had psychologists and sociologists arguing for decades since CPE Bach invented the Sonata Form and his father, J.S. yelled back “turn that crap down!”.

    The arguments that entertainment is harmful are, generally, just made up (as anybody who grew up watching the Tripper Gore rock album stickers hearings on TV saw). It is a “creative writing” exercise at best, as for anybody who prefers to base their written opinions on actual well-known facts (or even an existing text such as an analysis of a Shakespeare play) there is simply nothing to go on here.

  4. #4 NewEnglandBob
    March 17, 2011

    Now even the SATs have succumbed to the non-reality of reality TV. Is the entire world going to be overrun by the trivial?

  5. #5 ABradford
    March 17, 2011

    I think this question could have been posed much better and more generally, even with the same lead in. TV isn’t the only media where something called “reality” can be manipulated by “designing challenges” , i.e. constraining the event, or by clever editing.

    Ask the students “how authentic can an account of an event be if producers limit what can be done and editors limit what gets seen by the audience?”

    Actually, the second question would be just fine, as long as there’s some indication that the answer can include any type of entertainment, not just reality TV. As it is, I hope that students actually lost points on that one if they didn’t include other forms of media.

    Oh, and the damaging media debate goes even further back. Plato complained that the Oedipus plays would teach kids to stab each others eyes out.

  6. #6 Lenoxuss
    March 17, 2011

    Ditto to becca.

    I like to think that when the Wikipedia generation inherits the responsibility of writing these tests, they won’t assume themselves to be smart enough that they can make these sort of bald, non-neutral and uncited assertions. Then again, perhaps the job only attracts the sort of people who should be doing it…

    In any case, most reality TV is misleadingly edited, but not “fake” in the sense of being fully scripted like professional wrestling, albeit some shows will definitely up the pressure for participants to “act up”, as it were. There’s a sliding scale.

  7. #7 Thanny
    March 17, 2011

    I would have written an essay on the declining quality of standardized tests in today’s culture, citing the question as an example.

  8. #8 jim
    March 17, 2011

    Except for some bad wording and the very bad sentence about watchers believing its how people would act in the real world and the very loose definition of reality TV its not a bad question at all. Survivor for example is probably the best example in entertainment of game theory and without even knowing it average viewers over the years can start to sense the proper strategies to take.

  9. #9 blogger
    March 17, 2011

    They Describe what Reality TV is in the question. Why is this question unfair? They do not presume any existing knowledge of Reality TV. I suspect those students way too familiar with Reality TV were the truly disadvantaged on this question and the rest of the SAT.

  10. #10 Lenoxuss
    March 17, 2011

    Oops — where I wrote:

    Then again, perhaps the job only attracts the sort of people who should be doing it…

    I meant:

    who shouldn’t be doing it…

    You all know the kind of job I mean.

  11. #11 Kurt
    March 17, 2011

    All questions have some form of cultural bias built into them. I don’t watch much reality TV, but then again I don’t read much Shakespeare either. I’m not swayed by complaints over this question. What should they ask about?

  12. #12 Chris Hallquist
    March 17, 2011

    I think this question is idiotic, but does anyone know if it’s an especially bad one?

    What I don’t like about this question is that even if I were a reality TV watcher, I’m not sure I’d be able to think of any reason reality TV is harmful or beneficial.

    Couldn’t it be neutral? The question ignores that.

    A better question would have included more information that could be used in support of either side, make the student do something with that.

    Normally, Jason, you’re a candidate for the most level-headed blogger in my Google Reader, but this post comes off as “oh noes, the SAT mentioned some television shows I don’t like.”

  13. #13 Charles Sullivan
    March 17, 2011

    Even if students watched lots of reality TV shows, how would they be in a position to answer whether the shows constitute harmful or beneficial entertainment?

    To answer that question would require a psychological study, and even then there are most likely too many uncontrollable variables to get a definitive answer.

    Also, if students are not required to have watched reality TV shows in order to answer the question, that won’t work either. This is because all the students are told is that the shows are inauthentic (not true reality), which is irrelevant to whether the shows constitute harmful or beneficial entertainment.

    Definitely an unfair question.

    As an aside, when I took the GREs (years ago) we were told that one section of the test was experimental and would not be used to calculate our scores, but we weren’t told which section it was.

  14. #14 Physicalist
    March 17, 2011

    Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but I don’t think the question is that bad. One could presumably write a perfectly good essay on how the important issues are empirical and would need to be studied, or one could mount an argument about what counts as “authentic”. I doesn’t seem to me that familiarity with reality tv is required.

  15. #15 Charles Sullivan
    March 18, 2011

    But the question is evaluative, Physicalist: Did you read the question?

    “Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

    How would you answer that question?” And how would you justify your answer?

  16. #16 AL
    March 18, 2011

    What I don’t like about this question is that even if I were a reality TV watcher, I’m not sure I’d be able to think of any reason reality TV is harmful or beneficial.

    Couldn’t it be neutral? The question ignores that.

    I’m sure you could write an essay taking the stance of neutrality, and if it’s well written, you’ll get a decent score. You don’t have to adhere exactly to the prompt. That’s one of the test taking strategies mentioned in any prep guide I’ve ever read for an exam that has an essay portion.

  17. #17 Ken
    March 18, 2011

    I’ve never seen more than a minute or so of any reality show in my life, yet I’m sure I could write a good essay along the theme requested by the question.

    They aren’t looking for a high level of expertise based upon extensive knowledge of reality television shows, but how well you can put together a coherent argument about a subject. Reality television is a subject that everyone knows about, even if they have never been directly exposed to it.

    This sounds like nothing more than students looking for an excuse for why they can’t write decent essays, or kids showing off their superiority by proclaiming how little trash television they watch. (Kind of like how I did in my first sentence!)

  18. #18 Jim Harrison
    March 18, 2011

    Asking students to write essays on topics they know nothing about is the perfect way to judge their potential for college success since once they get to college they will take many exams on material from books they never get around to reading.

  19. #19 Thegoodman
    March 18, 2011

    I don’t see the question as unfair at all. It doesn’t ask to give specific examples from the previous night’s Idol. It asks a very vague question about a vague topic that relates closely to current events.

    Here are two identical questions that ask the test taker to demonstrate the same skills.
    “How authentic can [i]biographies[/i] be when [i]writers[/i] design [i]questions[/i] for the participants and then editors alter [i]answers[/i]?

    Do people benefit from forms of [i]literature[/i] that show so-called reality, or are such forms of [i]literature[/i] harmful?”

    I don’t see the difference. One could argue that these questions are unfair because they have never read a biography, but if they did, would you still defend them?

  20. #20 eric
    March 18, 2011

    Thegoodman: I was going to initially disagree with Jason and agree with you, but on second thought, I’m thinking he’s right.

    I tried to think about how I would answer such a question. I don’t follow any of them regularly, but I have seen seen a couple. So I would take a position (good! Bad! No effect!) and cite specific shows and specific ‘rules’ of those shows to help make my point. Because its a pretty standard rule of writing that specific and detailed argument with reference to actual events is more powerful than using vague generalities and hypothetical cases.

    So, while I would agree with you that it’s possible to answer that essay question without having seen the shows, the people who have seen them are going to have a significant advantage. They are going to be able to cite specific, real, cases to bolster their argument. They’re probably going to be quicker to fashion a good argument – and in the SAT, that matters. Unless these shows are part of general H.S. curriculum, that’s unfair. (If they are part of the curriculum, then ask away!!!)

  21. #21 Lenoxuss
    March 18, 2011

    Ultimately, it seems like the sort of question which could only be adequately answered with access to resources that are not allowed by the SAT. Not by watching episodes so much as reading news reports, etc. I imagine this question isn’t unique in this regard. Sloppy thinking abounds ever…

  22. #22 Ken
    March 18, 2011

    @Eric #20:

    The problem is there is no single question that would then be “fair”. I don’t care what the subject is, there will be some people more familiar with the actual source information than others. The only problem with this is if the majority of questions consistently skew for or against specific classes of people.

  23. #23 Ken
    March 18, 2011

    @Lenoxuss #21:

    All questions would be better answered if the students had access to the Internet. I would imagine that one indicator for potential college success is how efficiently and effectively someone can understand a question, find good information about it, and distill that into a logical, coherent argument.

    Can we figure out a way to test students while allowing such access? I haven’t figured out how to do that in anything but small groups of 15 or less, yet it is something worth striving towards. I find it to be more of a “real-life” test of problem solving and a better gauge for evaluating how well students understand concepts.

  24. #24 JimV
    March 18, 2011

    I like the question, mostly because I think I learned a lot about human nature watching the first three or four seasons of “Survivor”, and could write a long essay about it. So probably I’m biased by that, but I think it is open-ended enough that a good student could come up with something. This is just an essay, there should be no right or wrong answer, just an opportunity to assess how well the student thinks on his or her feet and can express those thoughts.

    I can recall to this day a much worse essay question from one of my standardized tests from about 35 years ago. Something about two roommates in a student dorm. One says something like, “You aren’t even trying!” The other replies, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Write a couple of hundred words about that. This current question? Luxury! We would have died for a question like that, it would have been like a palace to us.

  25. #25 386sx
    March 18, 2011

    Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?

    Note that it says “forms of entertainment”. Anyways, from what I gathered on the infallible wikipedia entry, they’re probably more interested in legibility and the “fancy shmancy words” count. (And apparently the No. 2 pencils too. Lol, I wonder if they have some sort of financial interest in the No. 2 pencil company. Maybe they have relatives who work there or something. Lol.)

  26. #26 H.H.
    March 19, 2011

    I don’t see how the question can be “unfair” when there is no correct answer they are looking for. The topic is supposed to be bullshit. They are only testing your writing skills and how well you can argue for a particular position (whatever position you choose).

    70% of college admissions offices don’t even look at the essay section anyway.

  27. #27 lkljlk
    March 19, 2011

    It’s important to take into account the fact that, often times, students start picking on a question not because there is something wrong with it, but because they do not understand it. SAT is designed for very intelligent people to succeed, the type of people, who can answer absolutely any question, no matter how non-sensical, idiotic or irrational it is.

    “Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

    The point here is that when people actually BELIEVE that something they see is real, could it be harmful for them, if they start believing that the reality they see in semi-real reality shows, is what the real reality is, especially if we are talking about kids, who don’t even know much about real reality, and are unable to tell real and fake things apart on TV.

    You can simply answer this question, without overcomplicating it, on a “Yes” or “No” basis.

    ……………………………………………

    “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?”

    (I find this topic really interesting, and would like to use the opportunity to comment on the subject matter itself.)

    Even though the challanges are designed by the producers, the behavior, which people exhibit as a result of such challanges, could be real, whether these challanges exist in real life or not. Competitiveness, backstabbing and desire to eliminate the unwanted people, which these shows try to emphasize, are quite real human qualities that can be observed in the work and living environment, where natural or artificial challanges are created by coworkers and employers.

    However, it’s also possible that people, who watch reality TV shows, implement them in reality, thus spreading and imposing the mentality of the unwanted and unnecessary human brutalization that effects and alters the non-TV reality, which is reflected back to the reality TV – reality.

  28. #28 Jamie
    March 19, 2011

    SAT is designed for very intelligent people to succeed, the type of people, who can answer absolutely any question, no matter how non-sensical, idiotic or irrational it is.

    Lolz! There are people with high test taking intelligence (in the case of essay questions, above average tolerance for bullshit and ability to produce it on demand). That is what we want in education? To produce superior bullshitters? Some people with other kinds of intelligence might be offended by the condescension and idiocy of the question. If all the test takers want is a sample of writing ability they ought to just ask for it. The SAT is presumably designed to test a skill set. Apparently the skills of taking idiocy in stride, and expressing opinions on poorly formed empirical questions which ought not to be answered, are highly valued. But it is impossible to know for sure without knowing exactly how the answers to the question are scored. I don’t think it is unfair in the sense that it is being complained about, but I do think it exemplifies some of the worst aspects of educational testing.

  29. #29 Jamie
    March 19, 2011

    Sorry, I inadvertently wrote, “test takers” instead of, “test givers”. My comment (#28) should read, “If all the test givers want is a sample of writing ability…”

  30. #30 flkghkg
    March 19, 2011

    @28

    I see nothing wrong with this question. It makes sense if you have some knowledge of human psychology. If you don’t, it’s your problem. If you fail the math section on SAT because you don’t know math, no one will accept your complains.

    There are highly intelligent people out there with incredible life experience, who can actually comment on the issue presented in the question. If you don’t have this capacity, may be you should consider a job as a cashier.

    “Apparently the skills of taking idiocy in stride, and expressing opinions on poorly formed empirical questions which ought not to be answered, are highly valued.”

    You have to remember that intelligent people are intelligent enough to correct the question asked, chanalize it to the direction they want or need it to go, and then answer it. And that’s what the bloggers under this article are having a problem with, among many other things.

    I presume you meant “RHETORICAL” when you used the word “emperical” to describe the question we are currently discussing.

    A rhetorical question is usually asked to produce an effect, and you know it. However, in this particular case,you know that the qustion asked MUST be answered. Therefore, what seems to be a rhetorical question to some, changes its nature to become a regular question, containing an ISSUE that you’re supposed to comment on.

    “That is what we want in education? To produce superior bullshitters?”

    Well, it all depends on how people define bullshit. You can call SAT and college education in general bullshit, but you go an take it and pay millions of dollars for it.

  31. #31 lfgkh
    March 19, 2011

    Another reason why some test takers got set off by the question is because of its complexity.

    This question involves several components it can be broken down to:

    1. How real are reality TV shows

    2. How can the reality of the reality TV shows be compared with the real life reality.

    3. If reality TV shows are not exactly real, then how do they effect the people’s perception of the real reality, if they believe that reality TV shows are based on and reflect real reality.

    3. How harmful are reality TV shows in general.

    4. Can they be beneficial, even if they misrepresent the real reality.

    4. What do reality TV shows show.

    5. What’s the purpose and the focus of the reality TV shows.

    Modern humans are required to have a brain complex enough to be able to retain all these intricacies and put them into perspective.

    And what are you going to do about it? (Rhetorical question)

    Feel free to answer this rhetorical question if you can.

  32. #32 lgkjkhj
    March 19, 2011

    “You have to remember that intelligent people are intelligent enough to correct the question asked, chanalize it to the direction they want or need it to go, and then answer it. And that’s what the bloggers under this article are having a problem with, among many other things.”

    I want to elaborate on the issue in my comment above.

    When somebody asks you a question, that sounds
    “poorly formed” or idiotic to you, you can always try and make it logical by paraphrasing or correcting it. When you paraphrase a question, you simply translate it, and put it into your own framework of “right” and intelligent.

    What makes sense to one person, may not necessarily make sense to another person, because each person has their unique educational background, life experience, ideas and perception, which create misunderstanding and/or percieving other people’s utterances as being “dumn” or irrational.

    SAT essay questions do measure skills. However, the skills measured require at least some knowledge of language, which, reflects and is closely intertwined with culture and all other aspects of life.

    Reality TV shows is something you should probably be familiar with, if you intend on surviving in the society you’ll be working in, and which demands college education from you. If you don’t know the most basic things about people, for instance, how they entertain themselves, then what’s the whole purpose of getting educated in order to fit in the society you’re trying to impress with your college degree? They might actually make fun of you for being “ignorant”.

  33. #33 matt
    March 21, 2011

    @#24 jimv

    Luxury! We used to have to answer essay questions sitting in a cardboard box in the middle of a pond! :-)

  34. #34 JimR
    March 21, 2011

    Seems like this suggests a good reality TV show. You have a panel of people who have to write an essay on some BS topic. Then you record all their comments and read the essays at the end. In the editing process you remove all the humdrum hand wringing, edit out dull parts of the essays and voila, you have a show. If there is a lack of vile material, just fill the time slot with adverts. The show could include bleeping inane comments to make it appear contestants were cursing. Also the compensation to the contestants for 2 hours work would be a mere pittance.

  35. #35 eric
    March 21, 2011

    Jim @ 22The problem is there is no single question that would then be “fair”.

    But that doesn’t mean there’s a false equivalency and we should throw the concept of fairness out. Its still useful, and even if perfect fairness is impossible some questions are going to be more reasonable than others.

    Asking a question about a certain type of pop culture that is not on any state’s currcula is a lot less fair than asking a question about some topic covered by most curricula. In the first case you are favoring kids who prefer some arbitrary set of entertaintment TV shows, in the latter case you are favoring kids who paid attention in school.

    H.H. @26: I don’t see how the question can be “unfair” when there is no correct answer they are looking for. The topic is supposed to be bullshit.

    Its not about whether there’s a correct answer. It about whether your test favors some arbitrary group by using questions about a random, non-educationally-related subject.

  36. #36 Lenoxuss
    March 21, 2011

    JimR is the winner, I think

  37. #37 david
    March 22, 2011

    These are entertaining and illustrative questions, both the original, plus the questions about the question. Good topic Jason.

    eric’s point is a good one about specifics, but it seems to me the student is asked to go beyond that. So lgkjkhj’s approach (I wish he would change his name, Joe lgkjkhj, or Joe Blxt, would be good.) is the one the test makers fully had in mind, I think. The test question is similar to hundreds of LSAT questions. Two sides are given or implied. The student is to identify the sides, state the problem, then pick one and give his reasons for his pick. No specific answer exists. The question is the opposite of rote learning, and differs from math, where there is only one answer. (However, there must exist math reasoning where several answers are possible, and one chooses, for a reason.)

    The Q is after all the old D&D debate again. And is it harmful and harmful to what, and what other? And if so, how harmful? The premises given in the test question are enough to proceed with an essay, even if you have no TV.

    So here I disagree with Jason and the kids. The kids were bumped out of their catechism rut and couldn’t stand it, I think.

    However, I think I could also choose to agree, for sport, and do the very type of thing the tester was looking for, which is dizzying to most academic minds : But supposing you were among the few who had done the math homework all those years…then here comes a B.S. question…

  38. #38 Pablo R
    March 23, 2011

    Firstly, there’s no “wrong” answer to the question as stated: “Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

    Secondly, even without the lead-in and explanation of what reality TV is (or isn’t), in my opinion, anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills can answer this question.

    Thirdly, and let’s be hones here, is there anyone out there, especially under the age of 19, who doesn’t know what reality TV is? I’ve never purchased a Brittany Spears or Lady Ga-Ga record, but I know who they are and have no doubt that I can speak intelligently on whether or not pop music is harmful.

    This is nothing more than intellectual elitism, pretending that a question that asks an incredibly relevant question is “unfair” because the subject matter is too pedestrian.

  39. #39 Liz
    March 25, 2011

    Bottom line: having “reality” shows as a topic for college- bound students on the SAT is absurd. I am in the secondary education department at the university I attend. I am going for my degree in English, and this is an embarassment to me. The fact this was on the the SATs shows the caliber that is now needed to get into college, which is very poor. I don’t think this is the most effective way to measure student writing skills. What happened to reading a passage and answering a few questions about it? That way, reading skills, as well as writing skills are measured. The fact that reality television is actually a topic on the SAT is embarassing. Yes, it can demonstrate a student’s ability to form an opinionated paper, but there are other prompts that would do just as well. Moral of story, go back to the good old questions of interpretation of a given text, not an interpretation of why Snookie is harmful to people’s sense of reality.

  40. #40 CarlosT
    March 29, 2011

    Even as someone who watches almost no reality TV ever, I think I would have knocked this one out of the park. The thrust of the question is whether presenting a selectively distorted version of events as “reality” is harmful. Pick an angle, come up with a few good arguments to support it, slap out five paragraphs and move on. All basic blue book exam technique.

  41. #41 ytryry
    April 2, 2011

    #30
    “That is what we want in education? To produce superior bullshitters?”

    Well, it all depends on how people define bullshit. You can call SAT and college education in general bullshit, but you go an take it and pay millions of dollars for it.

    …………………..

    Education is not really useful, when people’s only purpose is to use it to debase and brutalize people. If you read these blogs, you’ll probably notice that many bloggers are more concerned about picking on other bloggers’ unimportant and superficial problems that do not really solve anything other than make people feel bad about themselves.

    I just blogged under an article talking about experimentation on animals, where a blogger couldn’t stop criticizing my spelling, diagnosing me with mental illness, debasing me and diverting the discussion to completely different subjests, without actually realizing that I was trying to fight for the same cause he was fighting.

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