General Education

Some Thoughts on the SAT Essay

Some Thoughts on the SAT Essay
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Noodle Staff February 8, 2019

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Noodle Pro, Dan Edmonds, reflects on last year's SAT "reality tv" essay question and its biased nature.

Last year's SAT created quite a bit of controversy with its essay topics, which were about as disparate as I could imagine three topics being. The questions were:

"Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"

"Is it better for people to act quickly and expect quick responses from others rather than to wait patiently for what they want?"

"Are photographs straightforward representations of real life, or are they artistic creations reflecting the photographer's point of view?"

I commented some on the first prompt in the New York Daily News, but I want to expand upon those comments, and take a closer look at the seismic shift this trio of prompts represents.

SAT essay questions always come in two parts: the prompt (a brief text--usually a quote from a book, speech or article--designed to get the students thinking about the topic) and the assignment (which includes the questions listed above). While the assignment, in this case, talks only about "forms of entertainment," the actual prompt is very specifically about reality television.

So what, exactly, is the problem? I mean, do you have to have watched reality television to have an opinion on it?

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Perhaps not. But there are still two major issues here.

Firstly, undoubtedly students who are regular consumers of reality television will be at an advantage here. It's simply easier to talk about something you're familiar with. So an immediate (and curious) bias arises: this question, I would argue, favors students who watch a lot of television. Who watch, many would claim, a lot of bad television (shameful admission: I watch Top Chef and Project Runway religiously. I may occasionally watch other, more pernicious reality shows, whose titles I will not disclose on this exalted blog). It's inevitable that some bias will enter into questions on any standardized test, but shouldn't we be working actively to minimize such bias?

I would argue that this question actually embraces bias, and a rather atypical sort of bias: who, after all, doesn't watch reality television in this day and age? Well, there are some households--a small number, but they exist nonetheless--in which there are no televisions present at all. And there are a great many more in which what children are allowed to watch is strictly monitored. I think very religious families and a certain subset of secular progressives are more likely to fall into both of these groups.

Secondly: do we really want to encourage people to argue vociferously about something they know nothing about? It's one thing to have an informed opinion and to back it up with concrete details and critical thought. It's quite another thing to have an uninformed opinion that you're willing to argue with the same level of passion and dedication. It strikes me that one of the projects of education is to teach us how to think critically, how to formulate and defend informed opinions, and how to recognize when our opinions are uninformed (and how to remedy that situation through research).

The typical SAT essay--and of these three questions, arguably only the one on patience is "typical"--asks students to articulate an opinion on something that requires no particular life experience and no particular knowledge base. We all have experienced situations that demand our patience. We all have a notion of what constitutes heroism (a favorite topic on SAT essays), or on what bases sound decisions are made.

The reality TV question seems to demand a set of experiences we don't all have equal access to, and one that we can imagine a significant number (if not a significant percentage) of students feel that they have had virtually no first hand access to. Were they given a week's warning, they'd have watched American Idol and Real Housewives and whatever other reality pablum they could choke down in that timeframe; in short, they'd put themselves in the position to have an informed opinion. But the question, as it stands, introduces a peculiar bias into the test (that is, it favors those students who consume more of a particular type of entertainment), and does so at a time that could be particularly psychologically impactful (the essay is always the first section on the test, so anxious students could easily have their anxiety impact the rest of their performance).

The photography essay is curious in its specificity (to pick a field of inquiry as narrow as photography is very unusual), and in that students who have studied photography would have a clear advantage over those who have not; that said, I think it's fair to imagine that virtually every student has taken pictures, viewed photographs, been photographed, and so on. In short, some opinions might be more informed, but everyone would be able to articulate some kind of informed opinion. It was an unusual question, and no doubt some students found it hard, but I don't think it was biased on quite the same level as the reality TV prompt.

The bottom line, however, is this: students who were freaked out by the reality TV question need to recall that it is perfectly permissible to completely ignore the prompt and to focus on the question, which in this case was about forms of entertainment. Yes, the prompt's reference to reality TV may make that hard to do, but if you keep your focus on the question itself, you'll see a lot more possible examples open up.

Some final thoughts: what does College Board hope to accomplish in giving such wildly different prompts to their students? The putative goal of the SAT essay is to give us a notion of the student's writing ability, but how does giving a prompt that one student will find very familiar and comfortable but that another will find alien accomplish this goal? Are we ultimately simply testing which of our students can BS most effectively?

Wouldn't the goal be best accomplished by allowing each student to choose which of these three diverse prompts he or she wanted to write on? Shouldn't College Board do everything they can make sure students start on a level playing field, so differences in writing can be attributed to writing skill, and not to comfort with a particular topic?

Learn how to improve your vocabulary for the SAT Verbal Section and find out which schools prefer the SAT over the ACT.

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