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SAT Tests Knowledge in…Reality TV?

Bellesi Barbara | March 21, 2011

As a college-bound student, you might have heard some rumblings in the news or even amongst your own school administrators about the SAT and other standardized tests being biased against certain students, usually in reference to their socioeconomic status.

I once heard about one particular SAT that was criticized for using the word “regatta” as a vocab word on one of the vocab sections. Now, there’s nothing offensive about the word “regatta”–it means a boat race–but there is a catch: If you live in a land-locked area where there are no bodies of water to race on, boating might be foreign to you. And even if you do live in an area where there are docks, regattas usually involve expensive boats, including yachts–and depending on your economic status, “yacht” is simply not part of your vocabulary. Of course, it can be said that there are many things that we don’t know about simply because they’re not in our neck of the woods, and the way we can learn about them is through reading, but the College Board was criticized over the word “regatta” and even “chandelier” simply because they are not equal-opportunity words.

A recent SAT essay question was biased in a way that test takers and administrators alike didn’t see coming–it was biased against those who do not watch reality TV. While it didn’t require specific knowledge, like being able to keep up with the Kardashians or to define what a fist pump is, the essay prompt did assume that one knew the basic format of a reality television. Problem is, the kids who get perfect scores on the SAT aren’t watching any TV, let alone these sorry excuses for entertainment. (Apologies to Kim K and the fam, because I actually am a pretty big fan.)

It seems as though the effort on the part of the SAT writers “to be one of us” by asking a question they thought would appeal to teens backfired miserably. Some critics say it was an attempt to dumb the test down, but the fact that it instead freaked out many bright, non-TV-watching students has to make you wonder what exactly the Scholastic Assessment Test is really testing.

–Barbara Bellesi

  • Here’s the full text of the prompt:

    “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?”

    I’m of the opinion that the prompt provides even television-less students enough information to opine about the benefits/harms of reality TV, regardless of whether they partake in the shows themselves.

    A lot of test-prep people are up in arms about the prompt because it caught them off guard, and they’re rightfully hearing from their students who felt unprepared to answer the question. That’s unfortunate for those who paid for prep that proved ineffective, but it’s not a fault of the test, whose stated goal is to assess how well a student develops a point of view, organizes an argument, and displays mastery of grammar and style.

    A lot of us in the prep world encourage students to come prepared with a few “universal” examples ready to go — classic literature or historical figures, for example — and those weren’t exactly well suited for this prompt, but there’s no rule that the SAT has to use a prompt that will help students who’ve taken prep courses succeed. In fact, I’m sure the SAT writers are quite happy to be able to foil us once in a while.

    This was a tough question, but it was fair. Different essay prompts are always accompanied by slightly different scoring tables for the writing section, and if this prompt really was more difficult than the others given on the March test, that difficulty will be reflected in a more lenient scoring table.