Sometimes There Are Bad Questions

…at least on the S.A.T. This year, one of the questions on the test focused on reality television, asking students to weigh whether the contrived scenes in many reality TV shows undermined their authenticity.  After a brief description of reality television, the prompt asked, “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” Which might be fine, if all teens were avid TV consumers and familiar with the many different genres of reality TV (or at least familiar with enough shows to offer sufficient examples). As several friends mentioned on Facebook, we wouldn’t ask students to write on a genre or subgenre (poetry, Shakespearean drama) without some confidence that all students were familiar with it because they’d be forced to resort to generalities.

For this reason, I’ve been disappointed by the flippant reactions by some TV and media critics (Drew Grant’s Salon piece is one example), essentially mocking students for panicking about the question. Although Grant suggests that you don’t need to know Snooki’s arrest record or whatever, people who watch reality TV are at a profound advantage for this kind of question. And while Angela Garcia, executive director of the SATs, argues that any teen will have an opinion about reality TV, the phrasing of the question presumes familiarity with the shows, leaving students to scramble for examples (although the student who tied reality TV to Jacob Riis would likely get a high score in my book).

I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of asking a question that will encourage students to draw from interests in popular culture, but this particular question ignores the fact that reality programming may actually reach a much narrower audience than the S.A.T. test writers assume.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Everleth Said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    I don’t quite get the part about “editors alter filmed scenes,” which sounds to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what film editors do.

    Similarly, I always think it’s a cop out when people who come across badly in a reality TV show say they’ve been edited to look bad. Well, there wouldn’t be anything for editors to cut together to make someone look bad if that person weren’t behaving poorly to begin with.

    Also, the SAT seems to be equating “challenge” shows with all reality TV, leaving out popular docusoap format shows, e.g. the Real Housewives aren’t put through challenges, but I would call those reality shows — and which I’ve probably seen way too many of.

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