They Didn’t Cover This at Kaplan

April 12th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

A reality television SAT question causes a fracas.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

An essay on the first SAT test of 2011 had some kids wondering if they’d prepared the right way. “I was totally confused,” one anonymous honors student told the New York Daily News. “That was not the sort of question my SAT prep classes drilled me for. I was expecting to write about literature or historical events.” The question: "Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"

For those who haven’t thought about the SAT test for years, students are only given a single topic for their essay, which is part of the writing section and counts for one third of the test score.

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."

Plus, writes Joe Coscarelli at The Village Voice, “…everyone taking the SAT is supposed to already know that the prompt doesn't matter.” He posits that the media that have focused on it (like the NY Times, which devoted an article to the topic) cater to “aspirational, middle class whiners” and that “If you're spending your free time posting on a message board called College Confidential, then you probably have nothing to worry about when it comes to admissions.” Pushy parents, he says, should relax.

Still, let’s assume that plenty of parents – not just the pushy ones – have spent thousands of dollars on coaches and test prep courses and that plenty of kids have spent hours drilling for a higher-brow essay question. Do you think the question was insensitive, or a fair way to separate the literal-minded from the truly smart?