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It’s been over a week, and still not a day goes by that I don’t see a new article bashing The College Board for its decision to use reality TV as an essay topic. The topic caught me off guard just as it did everyone else, but I can’t justify all the hand-wringing that’s occurred in the days since.

Here’s the full text of the prompt:

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?

I’m of the opinion that the prompt provides even television-less students enough information to opine about the benefits/harms of reality TV, regardless of whether they partake in the shows themselves.

A lot of test prep people are up in arms about the prompt because it caught them off guard, and they’re rightfully hearing from their students who felt unprepared to answer the question. That’s unfortunate for those who paid for prep that proved ineffective, but it’s not a fault of the test, whose stated goal is to assess how well a student develops a point of view, organizes an argument, and displays mastery of grammar and style.

A lot of us in the prep world encourage students to come prepared with a few “universal” examples ready to go — classic literature or historical figures, for example — and those weren’t exactly well suited for this prompt, but there’s no rule that the SAT has to use a prompt that will help students who’ve taken prep courses succeed. In fact, I’m sure the SAT writers are quite happy to be able to foil us once in a while.

This was a tough question, but it was fair. Different essay prompts are always accompanied by slightly different scoring tables for the writing section, and if this prompt really was more difficult than the others given on the March test, that difficulty will be reflected in a more lenient scoring table.

Believe me, I’m no member of The College Board’s booster club, but I just can’t bring myself to be mad at them for this one. I just have to tip my hat to them that they threw something at me that I didn’t expect, even after all these years.

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