Many questions point to flaws in new adversity score on SAT (opinion)
In the wake 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. The details don’t appear to be completely set, but involve a score based on a variety of factors regarding the student’s high school and neighborhood. Obviously, we’re still sorting out the details here, but the College Board’s own statements seem to revolve around a few key features: only colleges will see your score, your score won’t be based on anything specific about you, and race isn’t taken into account at all.
Why the change? The most charitable interpretation is that the College Board is aware of and concerned about the effects of economic inequality on SAT scores and it seeks objective ways to quantify adversity that colleges should consider when evaluating applicants. Less charitably, you could say they’re introducing new product features to lure customers away from the ACT, the SAT’s main competitor, while promoting Advanced Placement exams, a College Board program, as a legitimate measure of educational privilege. The College Board may also prepare for an admissions landscape in which affirmative action as we know it will be prohibited, in which case colleges will look for new ways to promote different kinds of diversity. Whatever the real motivations, we know enough to raise some very important concerns, such as:
Does the “adversity score” measure the right things?
Trying to reflect all the factors relevant to adversity is an impossible task. Any list is vulnerable to criticism for what it contains and what it does not contain. Yet the details released by the College Board seem particularly arbitrary. Neighborhood median income makes sense, but does it take local price levels into account? Including crime rates is defensible, but is the percentage of adults in agricultural jobs in the same category? And what about the weights? If everything is really weighted in the same way, can we defend to put on an equal footing the crime rate and the percentage of rentals? Most people would rather take the risk of being a tenant than being a victim of crime. And what about race? How can a meaningful narrative of adversity completely ignore race? And let’s not forget: this score is not based on anything specific to the individual. For now, it all depends on what is generally true where you live, and that doesn’t include things like medical difficulties, mental illness, or if you had a chaotic home environment yourself. You don’t have to be a College Board critic (that I am) to think that there is something wrong with this story of adversity.
College Board advocates will point out that even imperfect measurement can add value, and it is, but bad enough measurement can be worse than no measurement at all. We might be better off taking a holistic approach that recognizes complexity and doesn’t try to fit everything into a single score, as the example of the College Board SAT essay shows. This essay task, like the adversity score, pulls too many disparate pieces together in a futile pursuit of objectivity. The colleges have largely rejected SAT essayand the adversity score could suffer the same fate.
Should it be kept secret?
It’s easy to see why the College Board would want the scores and how the scores are calculated kept secret. If the whole truth was 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 about either issue. A more legitimate motivation for secrecy may also be at play: it’s also harder to game the system if you don’t know what actions will improve your score and what difference your actions will make.
To get an idea of how this will go over with the public, think about what people think of credit scores, another rating that has real-world consequences on people’s lives and is derived from a formula partially based on data that we never see. Even people with good credit ratings don’t like credit reporting agencies, and people with bad credit ratings 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 the scores and 2) the scores were based on the general tendencies of people in their neighborhood instead of their own circumstances. They would be outraged, wouldn’t they? Well, the College Board offers something quite similar, so we should see some spectacular responses. I predict it will be difficult, because I know from experience that there is no fury like that of an SAT parent who is right.
Should the College Board be the one doing this?
Even if the adversity score were airtight in terms of logic and ethics, we could still object to it being administered by the College Board, an entity with products to sell and a perspective on what should be education. I asked Susan Goodkin, a national university consultant, and she had this to say:
If colleges think this information is important to their admissions decisions — and they should — why do they only assess it for students taking the SAT? This will put pressure on students who might benefit from the adversity score to take the SAT even though they might perform better on the ACT, and even when applying to elective colleges, adding further pressure on students already facing the disadvantages of the new score. is meant to capture. The colleges themselves should collect this information, not the College Board.
Is this really positive action?
Adversity scores did not appear in a vacuum. There is a good chance that the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions will be banned by the Supreme Court. If this happens, colleges will look for other ways to promote diversity. An adversity score could be part of that effort, but trading 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 would not.
There are many affluent African American and Latinx students in the applicant pool who would have low adversity scores, as these scores are currently calculated. Plaintiffs challenging Harvard University’s Affirmative Action Policy have argued that Harvard’s own analysis reported that 71% of underrepresented minorities admitted to college were “socio-economically advantaged”.
By some measures, the most educated demographic group in the United States is Nigerians. Additionally, there are millions of students who are not from underrepresented minorities (i.e. whites and Asians) who would have high adversity scores and be stronger competitors if the consideration of race and ethnicity was illegal. We’re not that far off from a very different world, and while the SAT’s adversity score alone wouldn’t force a sea change, it could be part of a sea change 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 into the system and publish or sell the data. Plus, as one of those high-priced test prep tutors, I can say with confidence that anything game-changing 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 who know the system who will tell you what it takes to get your adversity score. child wherever you want.
Admittedly, it’s going to be difficult to play with a system based on where you live rather than 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 increase the local crime rate or move to places they hate just for a little boost in admissions, but we’ll see the schools manipulate their adversity data much like colleges try to game the “top college” lists. We will also see parents going to great 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 tendencies it represents. After all, much of the information Adversity Score could yield is available now, anyway.
If I know your school and zip code, I probably know most of your adversity score. So maybe the adversity score won’t make much of a difference. However, it may have other influences. If such a blunt measure were used to shape admissions, it would further reinforce the idea that everything important in education can be measured with a number. Moreover, if adversity is a benchmark and therefore a form of currency, we can create an arms race of victimization that subverts our good intentions. We need equal opportunity, a strong safety net, and compassion for others, and we can have those things without contest to determine who has suffered the most.