SATs: Will ‘adversity scores’ make them fairer?
“On a scale of 1 to 100, how much adversity have you faced?” asked Jane Hu in Slate.com. That may seem like a hard question to answer, but the College Board—the company behind the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test—now believes it has a formula for measuring a student’s “environmental context.” The exact algorithm for determining the score is proprietary information, but it involves 31 variables in three distinct areas—school, neighborhood, and family life. Starting this fall, college admissions officials, if they choose, can weigh both the applicants’ SAT results and the amount of adversity they’ve faced. The goal is to address what College Board CEO David Coleman calls “the disparities in wealth in the SAT” and to level the playing field for students from struggling neighborhoods and schools, who aren’t likely to have the tutoring, SAT prep, hands-on parental support, and other advantages of well-off kids. Yale University has been testing the adversity score, said Michael Nietzel in Forbes.com, and likes the results. The percentage of low-income and first-generation students in its freshman class has almost doubled, to 20 percent. But will the adversity score really level the playing field for college applicants? Or will it “backfire, adding to Americans’ skepticism about the fairness of college admissions?”
The “elephant in the room” here is race, said David Clegg in NationalReview.com. Colleges know the Supreme Court may soon ban any consideration of race in college admissions. Thus, the adversity score serves as a “proxy for race,” to let colleges keep discriminating against upper-middle-class whites and Asians. Although the score doesn’t look at race itself, the variables it does consider—such as crime rates and property values in an applicant’s neighborhood—are clearly chosen to boost the admission odds of black and brown applicants. The score shares affirmative action’s fatal flaws, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. It “will undermine one of the last objective measures of academic merit” to make it possible for disadvantaged students to get into colleges where many of them then struggle academically.
The deeper problem, said Karol Marcowicz in the New York Post, is that the adversity score is such a crude tool for measuring what a student has overcome. What about that student who “lives in a great neighborhood and goes to a great school but goes home to an alcoholic father who beats him?” What if a kid is persistently bullied at school for being overweight or short? The adversity score has “a noble goal and an appealing premise,” said Sidney Fussell in The Atlantic, but adversity “isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative.” Whatever formula the College Board uses to measure it will be inherently subjective.
So do we ignore a student’s background altogether? asked Nicholas Dirks in Barrons.com. The SAT supposedly was designed as an egalitarian, objective means to measure a student’s innate academic potential. But wealthy parents and profit-seeking tutors have engineered it into a tool for the “reproduction of privilege” rather than its eradication. And privilege in America remains inextricably entangled with race and ethnicity, said Jeff Yang in CNN.com. Recent research has found that even black males raised in wealthy families in well-to-do neighborhoods are more likely to become poor in adulthood than to stay wealthy. Pretending that the many forms of discrimination still faced by black and brown students can be measured by a bloodless “adversity” score is a “heartbreaking act of surrender” to the claim that race no longer matters. ■