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The SAT's Proposed "Adversity Score" (From 2019)

[This essay of mine appeared on Inside Higher Ed in 2019, just as the College Board announced that it would assign an "adversity score" to applicants. Even though the plan was scuttled, I've posted this essay because the issues are still relevant today.]

Fresh on the heels of the college admissions scandal, and amid a national debate over economic inequality, the College Board just announced that it will assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT. Details do not appear completely set but involve a score based on a variety of factors about the student’s high school and neighborhood. Clearly, we’re still sorting out the details here, but the College Board’s own statements seem to revolve around a few key characteristics: only the colleges will see your score, your score won’t be based on anything specific about you and race isn’t factored in at all.

Why the change? The most charitable interpretation is that the College Board is aware of and concerned about economic inequality’s effects on SAT scores and it is looking for objective ways to quantify the adversity that colleges should take into consideration when evaluating applicants. Less charitably, one could argue that they are introducing new product features to lure customers away from the ACT, the SAT’s main competition, while promoting the Advanced Placement exams, a College Board program, as a legitimate measure of educational privilege. The College Board also may be preparing for an admissions landscape in which affirmative action as we know it will be prohibited, in which case colleges will seek new ways to promote different kinds of diversity. Whatever the actual motivations, we know enough to raise some very important concerns, such as:

Does the “adversity score” measure the right things?

Trying to reflect every factor relevant to adversity is an impossible task. Any list is vulnerable to criticism for what it includes and what it doesn’t. Still, the details released by the College Board seem especially arbitrary. Median income in the neighborhood makes sense, but does that take into account local price levels? Including crime rates is defensible, but does the percentage of adults in agricultural jobs belong in the same category? And what about the weightings? If everything is really weighted equally, can we defend putting crime rates on equal footing with the percentage of rentals? Most people would rather run the risk of being a renter than being a crime victim. And what about race? How can any meaningful account of adversity ignore race completely? And let’s not forget: this score is not based on anything specific to the individual. For now, it’s all about what’s generally true where you live, and it doesn’t include things like medical difficulties, mental illness or whether you yourself had a chaotic family environment. You don’t have to be a critic of the College Board (which I am) to think that there’s something very wrong with this account of adversity.

Defenders of the College Board will point out that even an imperfect measure can provide value, and that’s true, but a bad enough measure can be worse than no measure at all. We might be better off with a holistic approach that recognized complexity and didn’t try to bake in everything into a single score, as the example of the College Board’s SAT essay demonstrates. That essay task, like the adversity score, crams together too many disparate elements in a vain pursuit of objectivity. The colleges have in large part rejected the SAT essay, and the adversity score could suffer the same fate.

Should it be secret?

It’s easy to see why the College Board would want the scores and the way the scores are calculated to be secret. If the full truth were known, most people would be unhappy for one reason or another, and some of those people would probably have legitimate complaints. But it’s harder to complain about your score and how it was calculated if you don’t know anything about either issue. A more legitimate motivation for secrecy may also be in play: it’s also harder to game the system if you don’t know what actions will improve your score and how much difference your actions will make.

To get a sense of how this is going to go over with the public, think about how people feel about credit scores, another score that has real consequences for people’s lives and is derived by a formula partially based on data we never see. Even people with good credit scores don’t like the credit agencies, and people with bad credit scores rarely have anything positive to say about the system. Now imagine how much worse it would be if 1) people weren’t allowed to see scores and 2) the scores were based on general trends from people in their neighborhood instead of their own circumstances. They would be outraged, right?

Well, the College Board is proposing something quite similar, so we should see some dramatic responses. I predict this will be rough, because I know from experience that there is no fury like that of an SAT parent who has a point.

Should the College Board be the one doing this?

Even if the adversity score was airtight in terms of logic and ethics, we still might object to it being administered by the College Board, an entity with products to sell and a perspective on what education ought to be. I asked Susan Goodkin, a national college consultant, and she had this to say:

If colleges think this information is important to their admissions decisions -- and they should -- why are they evaluating it just for students who take the SAT? This will pressure students who might benefit from the adversity score to take the SAT even when they might perform better on the ACT, and even when they're applying to test-optional colleges, adding further pressure on students already facing the disadvantages the new score is intended to capture. The colleges themselves should be collecting this information, not the College Board.

Is this really about affirmative action?

Adversity scores haven’t appeared in a vacuum. There’s a real chance that consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions will be prohibited by the Supreme Court. If that happens, colleges will look for other ways to promote diversity. An adversity score could be part of that effort, but swapping race for adversity won’t produce the same results, mostly because race and adversity aren’t the same thing. While many underrepresented minorities would have high adversity scores, others wouldn’t.

There are plenty of affluent African American and Latinx students in the applicant pool who would have low adversity scores as those scores are currently calculated. The plaintiffs challenging Harvard University’s affirmative action policy argued that Harvard's own analysis indicated that 71 percent of underrepresented minorities admitted to the university were "socioeconomically advantaged."

By some measures, the most educated demographic group in the U.S. is Nigerians. Plus, there are millions of students who aren’t underrepresented minorities (i.e., whites and Asians) who would have high adversity scores and would be stronger competitors if consideration of race and ethnicity were illegal. We’re not that far away from a very different world, and while the SAT’s adversity score would not force radical change by itself, it could be part of a dramatic shift in higher education.

Will there be unintended consequences?

Yes, of course. But what kinds? If the scores are secret, there will be rewards for people who hack the system and publish or sell the data. Also, as one of those high-priced test prep tutors, I can say with confidence that anything that changes the rules of the game is good for business. If adversity scores become an important part of admissions, it will only be a matter of time before we have adversity consultants with knowledge of the system that will tell you what it takes to get your child’s adversity score where you want it to be.

Granted, it’s going to be hard to game a system that’s based on where you live instead of who you are and what you do, but I predict creativity in this area. I don’t think we have to worry about parents going on a crime spree just to raise the local crime rate or move to places they hate just for a little admissions boost, but we will see schools manipulate their adversity data just as colleges try to game the “best colleges” lists. We’ll also see parents go to extreme lengths for even a small advantage.

These concerns are serious, but I’m less concerned about the SAT adversity score and more concerned about the cultural trends that it represents. After all, much of the information that the adversity score could relate is available now, anyway.

If I know your school and your zip code, I probably know most of your adversity score. So maybe the adversity score won’t make much difference. Still, it may have other influences. If a measure this blunt were used to shape admissions, it would further entrench the notion that everything that is important about education can be measured with a number. Also, if adversity is a credential and therefore a form of currency, we may create an arms race of victimhood that subverts our kind intentions. We need equal opportunity, a strong safety net and compassion for others, and we can have those things without contests to determine who has suffered the most.

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