A ‘Reality’ Check for the SAT

"Privileged kids claiming disadvantage will not make an inspiring new generation of leaders." —Amy Chua, in a recent editorial for the Daily Beast.

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"Teaching for the test," a long-time plague to bored teachers and unconventional students, may have been reinforcing the exact traits in generation Y that their new bosses and older coworkers despise. You know the litany: wanting to be awarded for participation instead of results; demanding instant gratification; preferring to handle quick, concrete issues over critical thinking and problem solving.

Accordingly, SAT exams (infinitely study-for-able) generally require a regurgitation of memorized information. The serious students come to the test armed with vocabulary words, and fool-proof arguments, themes, and examples to discuss in their essays. But a recent test did something more than that: one of the questions asked students to think.

They were not pleased.

The prompt, which asked students whether they thought "reality TV" could be considered "real" should have been a favorite among 16 and 17 year olds. Instead, it drew anger from kids who'd already prepared to discuss The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible, not Jersey Shore.

As Amy Chua—Tiger Momand surprise supporter of the controversial question—reports, "One of the students who 'freaked out' wrote, 'My tutor had told me to use Martin Luther King as an example no matter what the question.'" Clearly, that wasn't an option for the question--which is surely an indicator that it was a step in the right direction.

As Chua notes, Gen Y's desire to be able to merely spit out information instead of thinking it through has the potential to be a real problem when those kids hit the work force: "One of my objections to over-coddling Helicopter Parenting is that it may not produce self-reliant, resourceful, and resilient young adults who have the inner confidence to overcome adversity on their own."

While a question about TV might appear on the surface to be evidence of a dumbing-down of society, this one actually asked more of students; that they set aside memorization (which, let's face it, is worthless in the real world thanks to the Internet) and work through the matter at hand with nothing but the information provided in the question. Which feels more honest in terms of what we're preparing these kids for. (When was the last time, for instance, that quoting Martin Luther King got you through a tough issue at work?)

Today's leaders got to where they are by working through problems on the job with limited information, and by convincing a team to get on board with their decisions. The leaders of tomorrow will have to do exactly the same thing. Beyond just covering reality TV, the new SAT essay question seems to be providing a reality check all on its own—that all the memorization in the world can't prepare you for a sudden problem in real time if you don't know how to think critically and for yourself.

Yet, as Chua also mentions in her piece, the rigorous testing—and the preparation that goes into it--may help students develop these skills after all. "Any high school student who prepares diligently for the SAT would know that she could easily get an essay question on a topic she knows nothing about," she writes. "…Anyone who actually sat down and practiced answering just 20 of them would have been prepared to structure a strong argument on just about anything."

Cathy Vandewater is an associate producer for Vault.com. Originally from Utica, NY, she holds a BA in writing from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she currently resides.

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