What Are We Testing, Anyway?

The SAT shouldn’t be criticized for asking about popular culture; it should be praised

The College Board has received criticism after some versions of the March SAT Reasoning Test included an essay question about reality television.  The essay prompt asked , “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?”  Many students objected to it, claiming that even hardworking, well-read students were at a disadvantage to those who watched a lot of often-lowbrow TV.  Their complaints, however, lead one to wonder what exactly the SAT should test .

The SAT is designed to provide a simple, quantifiable number measuring a student’s verbal and quantitative skills. The test has long been criticized for giving advantages to upper-class students who have the time and money to receive “coaching” for the test.  It’s built a reputation for asking very similar questions each year, making preparation relatively easy and routine. Many successful SAT takers come into the test with a SparkNotes-level knowledge of a few books with broad themes that seemingly apply to any prompt (the role of man in society, alienation, innocence vs. experience—you get the idea).  Students then find some loose way to connect these ideas to the test prompt and regurgitate the commentary they’ve honed in numerous practice tests.  The reality TV question, at least, required something different: It forced students away from such book references, demanding they form an opinion on their world.

College is the time when students are supposed to “find their voice.”  When they arrive on campus, students are less expected to repeat memorized facts than to form original theories.  Asking a question that requires students to look at modern culture with a critical eye is exactly what the SAT should be testing.  If students have to rely on a few memorized concepts to formulate an argument, they shouldn’t do well.  While memorization should help, it shouldn’t guarantee success.

Those who claim that a student needs knowledge of specific television programs to answer a general question on reality TV miss the point.  Students who spent the essay giving an in-depth description of Jersey Shore would not get much credit. To do well, the student would need to make a cohesive argument about the effects of reality TV, rather than describing what happened on a program.  The description given in the prompt was more than enough to make such an argument.

The fact that the students arguing against this kind of prompt believe that meaningless details about specific television programs make a good essay demonstrates the main problem: Students approach these SAT prompts with the goal of packing in details to support an argument.  Students shouldn’t have to focus on extraneous details that don’t directly answer the question; the focus should be on developing an idea with personal insight.

There’s no doubt that the prompt was a difficult one that would put students out of their comfort zones of practice examples.  It’s not exactly fair that, after years of bland, mindless questions, the test designers suddenly asked for something entirely different.  Nevertheless, now that students have been warned, the SAT shouldn’t go back.  Topical and thought-provoking prompts are exactly what the College Board should be asking. Let’s not test how many opportunities they have for preparation; let’s test how they think.

Chris R. Kilgore ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Straus Hall

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