SAT Reality-TV Question: College Board Chief Defends

An essay prompt on this year’s test sparked an uproar by asking students to write about the ethics of reality TV. But don’t worry, says College Board chief Laurence Bunin—Snooki is not required reading.

A surprising amount of time has been spent this past week on breathless commentary about why the SAT chose to use a popular-culture reference to reality television as an essay prompt in the writing section of the test. The fact that this essay prompt generated so much attention only reinforces the fact that the experts and scholars who develop the test succeeded in choosing an engaging, thought-provoking topic. For the record, this is 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?

The central task of the SAT essay—any SAT essay—is to take one side of an issue and develop an argument to support that position. Questions raised about the so-called reality-show prompt miss this basic point entirely and confuse the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. Everything a student needs to write a successful essay is included in the prompt itself; one need not have spent any time watching a “reality” television program to write a strong essay.

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. It’s about the balance, not the mountain climbing. Students tell us that they can relate to popular-culture references. Using such references is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students.

As a nation, we should do all we can to encourage students to become better writers. The ability to write is critical to compete and succeed in the 21st-century economy. Sparking the interest of students is an important part of that process. Any teacher who has ever worked hard to motivate and connect with students can attest to that.

To be clear, each SAT essay prompt undergoes extensive pretesting before appearing on an actual SAT. Hundreds of sample essays are written by students from diverse backgrounds and are evaluated by high school and college faculty members to determine each prompt’s validity. Our pretesting of the essay prompt gave us confidence that the prompt would be accessible to test-takers and would generate a variety of responses articulating different positions on the issue. Indeed, we found this prompt to be extremely engaging to students.

We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality-television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs.

We acknowledge that not all students spend valuable hours watching reality-television shows, nor are we recommending that students watch these programs. However, we have found from our pretesting that students not only grasp but are quite interested in the underlying issues covered in the prompt: the effect of television on society; the desire for fame and celebrity on the part of “ordinary people”; and the authenticity and value of various “realistic” representations—an issue central to the study of painting, film, drama, and literature.

In our test-development process, we attempt to present issues of particular relevance to students’ lives rather than complex abstractions that inhibit expression. This is a writing test, and our primary goal is to develop prompts that generate strong student writing. However, we also recognize that students’ experiences vary widely, and thus strive to present issues that are wide-ranging enough so that students will have relevant reading, study, experience, or observation from which to draw. We found from our pretesting that the larger issues implicit in the prompt were wide-ranging enough to engage all students, even those who lacked familiarity with particular reality-television programs.

Given the vast array of reality shows found on television today, and the impact their popularity has on magazine and newspaper sales, it might be difficult for some news organizations to resist the temptation of trying to link the SAT to a particular television program—as some news outlets have attempted to do. But doing so only results in a disservice to students and families, and a gross distortion of the SAT essay section in the process.

Laurence Bunin is senior vice president, College Connection & Success, at The College Board. He is responsible for leading, developing and managing the College Board's programs, activities, products, and services to help students connect with and successfully complete a high-quality college education.