Head of SAT Program Defends Reality TV Question

March 21, 2011

Last week's news that the latest essay question on the SAT focused on reality television has set off quite a bit of media commentary and comedy. The Huffington Post, for example, suggested that the College Board might shift the focus of the SAT entirely, with questions requiring aspiring college students to calculate the circumference of a Kim Kardashian body part, or to "compare and contrast the social impact of Kanye West's interruption of the VMA's with his tweet on abortion."

The College Board is not making any apologies, however, and is stressing that the essay questions it asks are judged not on content knowledge, but on the ability to explore an issue and make an argument. Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the College Board, wrote an essay on the controversy for The Daily Beast, saying that all of the "breathless commentary" was irrelevant.

"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," Bunin wrote. "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."

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