Yesterday I wrote a formal complaint to the College Board, the folks who put out the SAT placement test. The content of my letter has been brewing ever since Saturday, when my son took the SAT test, and the essay question was about reality TV. I referred to my disgust over it in my rather morose poem that day (click here), and yesterday morning a newspaper picked up the story with a good synopsis of how we felt (click here). The newspaper article, incidentally offered a poll of whether this was a reasonable question for the SAT or not and as of last checking 83% said, No.”
My son comes to this college entrance test as a strong contender, having taken his academics seriously as a homeschooler. Also, as referred to on this blog (click here) these tests carry more import for homeschoolers than regular high school kids, who already think the stakes are oppressively high for them. My son spends his time well, studying, reading, building robots, writing computer programs, and being politically active. This son has read and edited large swaths of Wikipedia, and knows a lot about a lot of things, but TV is not one of them, especially not reality TV. We occasionally watch a DVD but we do not watch live television, with the exception of an occasional Masterpiece Theater offering or the Olympics.
As mentioned in the above newspaper article, the essay question the rest of the country got was, “Is patience a virtue,” which is much more typical of what to historically to expect of an essay topic on this exam. Andrew could have slam dunked that one, with evidence from George Washington at Valley Forge, FDR examples, and then fortified by experiences from his own robotics team. But he had absolutely no frame of reference for the reality TV question, no experience, and no concrete, powerful specifics to support any hastily fabricated point of view. The test allows only 25 minutes for the completed essay. The question was the very first one on the test, and all the erroneous assumptions it implied angered him, possibly putting him off his game for the rest of the test.
Do we really think that a knowledge of reality TV is how colleges want to choose their incoming freshman? Do we really want to be sending the message that TV is what is important? What about all the campaigns like Turn Off the TV nights designed to get students to do something better with their time, that this gesture cavalierly sabotages? My son prepared for serious questions, does this topic reward his hard work, or make a mockery of it? Could they possibly have overlooked the fact that this question discriminates against non-TV watchers? We are not unusual in our circles, many we know drastically limit TV, and some don’t even own them. The elite intellectual kids to whom this test is most critical for getting them into the top colleges are the ones least served by this inappropriate question. Was this designed to circumvent their chances and bolster weaker students, or was it a merely myopic blunder?
A student has five days to withdraw their score directly after the test. We have chosen to let the score stand and await the results which are available in three weeks. So whatever his score on this is, it will show to all the colleges, whether he takes it again or not, regardless of whether it represents him as the strong writer he is or not. Because he is slated for so many other subject tests on the remaining test dates, he may have to forgo subject tests he was going to take in order to take this general test again. If that is necessary, it means he’ll be forced to narrow the range of schools to which he can apply, and all for what? Because he doesn’t watch TV?
What recourse do parent’s have? If we all in mass boycotted the SAT’s what would then become the level field for college admissions? I have no real problem with the need to take this test, but it is not a level playing field when a third of your score is based unexpectedly on a popular culture that everyone does not share. Popular culture is eroding the potential of America too much as it is, and this disaster of an essay question reveals that many must think we have become synonymous with the lowest (not so common) denominator of that. Can we return to America representing genuine excellence again? How do we do that?