We've Got Hollywood Covered

Keep Questions About Reality TV Out of the SAT Exam

What happened to questions necessitating historical reference, or eliciting deep self-analysis?

I am not a fan of reality TV, or "junk reality" as I referred to it in this earlier post. 

However, over at the College Board, the organization in charge of administering the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) — used as the measurement of intelligence to determine college suitability — someone must be.  

During the last SAT session, the essay portion required test-takers to answer this question: “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?”

At first, this unscholarly topic choice doesn't seem worthy of the many hours of preparation, money and sacrifice SAT-takers invest in the make-or-break exam.

What happened to questions necessitating historical reference, or eliciting deep self-analysis to come up with an answer representative of the high standards our education system and teachers have been trying to instill in our children?  

Let's give the author of this question the benefit of the doubt.  

Imagine it's someone concerned about "so-called reality shows," and they thought it would be a fruitful exercise to coerce kids growing up with these pervasive programs to analyze their impact on society. What's more, it's likely these same teens could later become leaders of our country … or Warner Brothers.

Undeniably, this SAT question is a direct reflection of the mainstream dominance Hollywood has on our current culture, and the examining institution thinks this topic merits reflective writing.  

Besides, the stranglehold pop culture has on teens shapes their mindset and could be to blame for some the negative influences in our youth's current social environment: Promiscuity, underage drinking, underachieving and an over-materialistic lifestyle.

But, was it a fair question to ask students who likely studied other key figures of our culture like presidents, writers, scientists or poets — instead of "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" — to prepare for the principal measure of their intellectual potential for Harvard?  

Sure, you don't need a TV set to know who Snooki or The Situation are these days — simply going to the grocery store exposes you to these ubiquitous characters at the checkout stand.

Oddly, this essay question assumes knowledge of something that is not actually taught in school nor referred to in the massive tomes sold as guides to "Crack the SAT." 

Then again, teens are usually greatly influenced by the trends set by Hollywood and they don't have to watch "My Super Sweet 16,"  they simply have to observe their peers mimic their TV counterparts' jargon, hairstyles, fashion and manner to know what's cool.

Even so, I have to go along with the many furious parents and students who faced this question, and may not have had enough points of reference to elaborate on this topic.

I mean, where do you start? Certainly "The Bachelor" can teach you how to date; "Kate Plus 8" shows you how to raise a family; "16 and Pregnant" exemplifies how to become famous by going at it backwards, and watching "Skins" (insert lesson here).

The College Board defended their essay subject by saying they could have asked to compare climbing Mount Everest to a personal ordeal, and physically climbing to the peak isn't necessary.  

I would agree that overcoming obstacles is a daily experience for many. Moreover, referencing landmarks or historical accounts of survival are frequently found in literature and studied and dissected in class.

On the other hand, being rich and famous for contributing absolutely nothing to our society's advancement is not a common experience nor the subject of any course that I'm aware of.

Furthermore, would the reality-TV generation, who might consider these shows "normal," have the broader sense to reflect on them as progress or as a sign of our society's decline? 

After all, television shows didn't just take a quantum leap from "Leave it to Beaver" to "The Jersey Shore,"  or from "The Flint Stones" to "Family Guy." Each generation of network heads pushed the envelope further to gain popularity and advertising dollars.

Call me a dreamer, but from a purely altruistic standpoint, I wouldn't be as mortified about the College Board's unfortunate selection based on reality shows as the SAT's essay topic if the students' writing exercise about how reality TV affects them, and those around them, sparked the notion that there's a critical need to rein in disposable entertainment's negative force.   

Ostensibly, the dummying-down of the SAT is a step that could be to our society's collective benefit. 

The valuable insight students were required to summarize in the 25 minutes allowed to write about this subject,  clearly sends the message that there is a need to assess how the reality-TV phenomenon is transcending into future generations of heads of state and captains of (entertainment) industry.

I'm hopeful (but not holding my breath) that when little Charlie or Lindsay become the leaders of MTV or TLC, they would be concerned that the quality of the programming was overhauled to move away from sordid shows like "Celebrity Rehab" or "Toddlers and Tiaras,"  and replace them with TV fare focusing on a better side of America with a balanced sense of dignity, morals and values.

It's a stretch, but hey! Forcing teens to evaluate reality TV's influence may not have been altogether futile.

In my view, making college-bound students take an introspective look at our pop-culture-driven society might help them recognize they should not allow unrealistic TV shows to lower the standard of their intelligence.



Suzette Valle was recognized by Time Warner Cable as one of San Diego's Best Moms. She is the author of "101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up" (Walter FosterJr. Fall 2015), a reference book for kids. She has appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show discussing the effects of reality shows on families. Her posts have been featured on Fox,YahooMovies.com, and Movies.MSN.com. A mother of two, she lives in San Diego with her husband. She blogs about parenting and Hollywood's influence on children's daily lives and family values at www.MamarazziKnowsBest.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzetteValle.