The SATs: Flat Learning Curve=Unfair Questions

The secret to acing your SATs? Know your Kardashians!

After all the anger, debate and controversy in the Sixties over affirmative action and the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, with the case finally being made to the public’s satisfaction that including test questions  based on cultural references likely to be unfamiliar to African-Americans or lower-income students (such as, famously, questions about yachting) negatively affected their test scores, wouldn’t you think that it would have been thoroughly understood by the people who make up the SAT scores that questions with a cultural bias were inherently unfair and incompetent questions?

Here is the prompt for the essay question in the SAT test given to high school students across the country last week :

“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?”


According to an article in the New York Times, this question freaked out some of the questioners who, admirably enough, had never watched a reality show chronicling the likes of Snooky, the Kardashian sisters,”The Situation,” Anna Nicole Smith, Dog the bounty hunter, or any of the assorted repo men, truckers, sword fishermen, bully chefs, sluts, idiots, addicts and human train wrecks featured on the wildly popular and ubiquitous TV shows that herald the destruction of Western Civilization. Why had they never watched any of them? Because they were reading Proust and Tolstoy and Bellow, and actually trying to improve their brains rather than poison them. Why did they panic? Because they had no idea what the question referred to…and that should be a good thing.

It is fine to say, as the SAT officials did in defending their test to the Times, that the question told the students all they needed to know, and that it was a writing challenge, not a test of pop culture knowledge. Still, these tests are stressful, and including a required essay on a topic that some students are completely unfamiliar with—because they are diligent, have their priorities straight, and have taste… is the kind of unexpected hurdle that can cause those students to lose confidence and composure.

“This is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched TV,” one test-taker wrote on  the Web site College Confidential. “I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively,” he wrote. “I kinda want to cry right now.”

(Oh-oh. I don’t even know who Jacob Riis was.)

The students who were familiar with reality shows, but maybe not Riis, thought it was a swell question. “I talked about “American Idol”…how it can push people to strive towards better singing skills…and “The Biggest Loser”…how it influences people to become healthier,” one commenter wrote on College Confidential. “Wasn’t that hard from what I thought.”

Well, of course. It was a familiar area for him…kind of like that yachting question was for Chatsworth Osborn III in 1963 while Tyrone Jackson was left scratching his head. Tilting question topics toward the elite was wrong and unfair then, and tilting the subject matter toward the pop culture savvy and trivial-minded, and to the disadvantage of the serious, studious and discerning now is wrong, unfair, and also inexplicable, given the SAT’s history.

If the SAT test makers aren’t any smarter than this, they have no business testing anyone.


Note: Curmudgeon Central has an excellent essay on this topic here.

5 thoughts on “The SATs: Flat Learning Curve=Unfair Questions

  1. Maybe the whole notion of this test and its psychometric analyses is fallacious on its face and it needs to be rejected in whole.

  2. I’d argue that this prompt is far worse than asking a single vocabulary question (among dozens) about the definition of “regatta,” which iirc was the furor back in the mid-70s. True, there’s a cultural bias there in the latter case, but it’s not a terribly exotic word, and the effect may have been mitigated by other questions in which the bias worked in the other direction. (And the question was promptly scrapped.) Furthermore, the worst thing that could happen as a result of that question would be that a particular student might score 10 points (out of a range of 600) higher or lower than s/he would otherwise have scored.

    The reality tv prompt, apparently, played a far greater role in determining students’ scores, as one of far fewer means of determining a writing score. More importantly, the College Board’s VP for Communications’ assertion that “everything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt” is, in a word, bullshit. To write the kind of uninformed pabulum that he might write, maybe. But students who watch crap tv will be in far better position to provide specific examples, weigh the relevance of arguments, and generally write the kind of essay that would impress an examiner. (I almost applied for a job grading such essays when I was in grad school, but ultimately I decided I’d get to read more than my share of bad writing before long.)

    Writing the question may have been a lapse of judgment: it never occurred to the prompt-writer that some teen-agers don’t watch this drivel. Defending it when the obvious problem has been pointed out, however, is unconscionable.

  3. My own (scanty) knowledge of it seems to suggest that while the reading and math sections have become relatively decent indicators of general student knowledge and/or intelligence, the writing section (particularly the essay portion) is a little iffy, to say the least. Hell, there’s probably a reason a lot of colleges seem to ask for a separate reading/math only composite, alongside the total composite (heck, even the SAT graders themselves sends a reading/math component that’s separate from the total SAT score).

  4. I’ve heard of Jacob Riis… somewhere. What got me was how blatantly leading the question was on reality TV. The fact that I agree with the analysis is of no consequence. And, as you mention, there’s the question of its relevancy. Isn’t the point of this exam to pick out young people who are potentially worthy for higher education? It’s quite true that awareness of the pathetic state of the culture is more important than most people realize; a point I’ve made quite often. But- again- is this relevant on an SAT test? I certainly was never asked questions like that when I was in high school.

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