Cheating and Reality TV

August 8th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Standardized testing has taken quite the beating over the last several months.

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The Responsibility Project

A recent investigation into Atlanta Public Schools uncovered widespread cheating on state curriculum tests over the past decade, so much so that staff were even awarded bonuses by misleading children and parents and perpetuating misconduct.

And yet, it’s not the first time standardized testing has made headlines this year. An essay on the first SAT test of 2011 had some kids wondering if they’d prepared the right way. The prompt: "Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"

The question caused a serious ruckus in the media, as newspapers including The New York Times and Washington Post questioned the cultural sensitivity of posing a reality TV-related question to kids who may observe conservative or highly religious standards, live in homes with no televisions, or even those who have spent all their time preparing for more orthodox questions, such as “Is patience a virtue?” (which some kids received as a question on the same day). College networking sites such as College Confidential were abuzz with nervous kids wondering if all their prep time had been in vain.

The Daily News article lobbed this accusation: “You would think that College Board President Gaston Caperton, the former governor of West Virginia, would earn his eye-popping compensation of $872,061 by refusing to dumb down the venerable 110-year-old exam.”

But the College Board defended their choice, saying that kids don’t need to be TV watchers to have answered the question. Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, told The New York Times, “It’s really about pop culture as a reference point that they would certainly have an opinion on…The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills."

Do you think the question was insensitive, or a fair way to separate the literal-minded from the truly smart? And is the widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools indicative of the need for testing changes, or simply an aberration?

(A portion of this story was previously published as “They Didn’t Cover This at Kaplan” on The Responsibility Project on 4/12/11)