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SAT Reality TV Question: Uproar over Jersey Shore?

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After months of preparation and dozens of practice exams, thousands of high school students sat down in front of the real deal on Saturday, March 12, 2011—the dreaded SAT.

The college entrance exam has been a source of teenage anxiety for over a century, but one essay topic in particular has sparked controversy among certain students and their parents: a question about reality TV.

SAT Essay Prompt Upsetting Students and Parents

The College Board, which owns the SAT, is standing by their “controversial” question. One of three randomly-distributed essay prompts is making headlines because it references reality television, a genre of entertainment that’s a regular habit for millions of Americans yet apparently taboo to others.

The question at hand doesn’t mention the Jersey Shore gang, the Kardashian sisters or even Dancing with the Stars. Instead, as reported by the Washington Post, the “scandalous” essay prompt reads:

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?

Is the SAT Being Dumbed Down?

Forget reality TV causing harm—the now-infamous question itself has apparently anguished plenty of students, parents and school officials, who are in an uproar over the situation (and no, not “The Situation,” but you’d have to watch reality TV to know who he is.) The essay question was, as Forbes blogger Katie Phillips put it, “definitely not what kids who have spent countless hours brushing up on their Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens had expected.”

College Board Stands Behind their Reality TV SAT Essay Question

Critics are claiming the SAT has been “dumbed down,” but the College Board stands behind their test and the question. Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, told the New York Times that she didn’t think it was unfair to ask the question of students who had neither the time nor inclination to watch reality TV shows. “The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” she said.

The College Board’s chief, Laurence Bunin, also defended the questionable question in a rebuttal published on the Daily Beast. Explaining that the central task of any SAT essay is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position, Bunin claimed that people who are complaining about the reality show prompt missed this basic point entirely, and confused the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. He compared watching reality TV to mountain climbing. “If the topic had been about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, you could write that essay without ever having done so,” he said. “We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality-television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs,” Bunin added in the article.

Test Takers Angered by Reality Show Question

His explanation does make sense, but try telling that to the hordes of angry high schoolers and their parents out there. Many are claiming that the question assumes all students have a television and watch plenty of trashy reality TV, enough to distinguish reality shows from “regular” TV shows.

  • One Montgomery County father, who asked not to be identified, told the Washington Post that 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.
  • According to the Post, an irate honors student told the New York Daily News, “I guess the kids who watch crap TV did well. I was completely baffled; I watched ‘American Idol’ four years ago.”
  • Yet another livid test taker shared their sentiments with the New York Times. “As a junior who took the SAT on Saturday, I was infuriated with the prompt. I read The Times daily and I watch the news every night, so I am more than adequately prepared to discuss the disaster in Japan or the leadership issues with Mubarak and Gaddafi. When I saw the prompt, my jaw became slack and my eyes twitched in horror. SAT essays should reference literature and current events, not reality television.”

Seriously, What’s All the Fuss About?

Other people—students and parents—just don’t see what all the fuss is about and believe it’s possible to write about reality television without ever having seen or thought about it.

  • One parent told The New York Times, “It reminds me of those questions they ask in beauty contests. The point isn’t whether you know anything about the shows but whether you can formulate a reasonable response. The question isn’t about show CONTENT. As an adult who doesn’t watch those shows I could certainly respond to the question. My 15-year-old daughter who also doesn’t watch those shows says ‘But everyone’s HEARD about those kind of shows.’”
  • “The question is asking you to respond to perceived dishonesty in television production. The writer doesn’t need to have watched a single episode of reality TV to understand it and to respond appropriately,” commented another New York Times reader.

Even Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the infamous “Tiger Mother” who penned the parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, finds nothing wrong with the controversial SAT question.

In the Daily Beast’s The Tiger Mom’s SAT Surprise, Chua writes “I’ll bet the kids doing the complaining are not too poor to have a TV but instead relatively privileged. Any SAT essay question—whether about music, sports, or politics—will favor students with certain interests,” and “Any high school student who prepares diligently for the SAT would know that she could easily get an essay question on a topic she knows nothing about. There are hundreds of sample essay questions freely available. Anyone who actually sat down and practiced answering just 20 of them would have been prepared to structure a strong argument on just about anything.”

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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