The College Board has revealed that it will calculate an “adversity score” for every student taking the SAT. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s an attempt to address evidence that children of wealthy, college-educated parents score higher on the SAT than less privileged students. At least in theory, the adjusted scores will help colleges more objectively evaluate the academic abilities of all applicants. The undergraduate admissions dean at Yale, one of 50 schools that participated in a test run of the new scoring system, told the Journal that it has already helped diversify the freshman class.
The adversity score will be a number ranging from 1 to 100, calculated from 15 factors such as neighborhood crime rates and poverty levels. A score of 50 will be the average; scores above 50 reflect increasing levels of hardship, and scores below indicate higher degrees of privilege. SAT officials indicated that students would not be informed of their adversity scores, but colleges will have access to them as they make admission decisions.
According to the Journal, the development of the new score began in 2015. The plan is to increase the number of participating institutions to 150 this year and then expand use of the index nationally the following year.
The obvious intent of this adversity score is to increase the diversity of students admitted to college and to improve the perceived fairness of admissions at a time when they have come under heavy fire for being subject to bias, privilege and in the case of the college admissions scandal, outright fraud. Whether the adversity score will do the trick and also be able to withstand legal challenges and public scrutiny remains to be seen.
This is not the first time the College Board has “adjusted” SAT scores based on student backgrounds. According to the Journal’s reporting, about 20 years ago it experimented with what it called a “Strivers” program that used socioeconomic variables – and at school’s discretion, race – to predict SAT scores. Students whose actual scores exceeded their predicted scores by more than 200 points were dubbed “strivers.” Presumably, they fared well in the admissions chase, but there were so many objections to the program by institutions that it was discontinued.
The adversity score apparently does not include race, but it’s obvious that the score is an attempt to be a proxy for race, thereby dodging claims that it is racially discriminatory.
A good idea or a bad plan?
What should we make of the new SAT adversity score? Will it increase fairness in college admissions? Will it help increase the diversity of enrollments? Or will it backfire, adding to Americans’ skepticism about the fairness of college admissions? Will it be viewed as an algorithm for political correctness, or worse, a form of handicapping that brings students with high scores more harm than good in the long run?
David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, justified the adversity score to the Journal this way: “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”
He’s right, but that doesn’t mean that adversity scores will solve the problem. Here are four reasons why we should be skeptical.
- The College Board has not revealed the factors or their weights in calculating adversity scores beyond claiming that some of the data are from public sources and some are proprietary. This is unacceptable. If it refuses to disclose how adversity scores are calculated, the College Board should not expect the public to accept them.
- At a time when standardized testing is under increased scrutiny and is even being discontinued or minimized as an admission tool by hundreds of colleges, one must wonder whether adversity scores are primarily an attempt to protect the SAT’s market or to promote social mobility. Colleges that are genuinely concerned about the bias built into the tests or the cheating associated with the SAT or the ACT, have a simpler choice: don’t require student to take them.
- Measuring neighborhood adversity is not the same as assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit. Although we can’t know for sure, it’s doubtful that adversity scores measure the influence of parents, siblings, and mentors on a student. There’s not a straight line from socioeconomic background to SAT performance; assigning an adversity number suggests an influence that may not be operating for individual students.
- The fact that the College Board does not want students to know their adversity scores reflects their own discomfort with the concept. And for good reason. It’s a potential source of self-handicapping and self-fulfilling prophecy.
We need fair, transparent, college processes that result in the admissions of diverse, capable students prepared to study hard and finish college. But do we really need adversity scores to do so? No.