The Adversity Score Illusion
There are a lot of shitty things about being 17. But as I walked into my high school on a Saturday morning, three razor-sharp #2 pencils in one hand and my lucky peppermint herbal tea in the other, I felt that the SAT had to be among the shittiest.
I’d taken enough standardized tests that I knew the routine, right down to the “lucky” Yale™ sweatpants I threw on as I sped out the door. On these days, I was acutely aware of my failings. I replayed the time I had an anxiety attack during another standardized test and left the math section half-completed. I felt guilty about the precious free time I spent watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix instead of poring over my Princeton Review study guides. But I also thought often about the factors outside my control. I thought about how my high school receives the lowest per-pupil funding permitted by the State of Michigan, how my rural, working class community was neglected by education initiatives, how my K-12 education often felt like a losing battle for more challenging academic options than a process of acquiring knowledge.
Two years later, the College Board announced they have been thinking about those things, too. Their new “adversity index” attempts to rectify the fact that students from wealthier backgrounds typically earn higher scores than students from middle-class or low-income backgrounds, quantifying each student’s experience with adversity, including factors such as high school free/reduced lunch rates, income relative to neighborhood, and opportunity for students to receive AP credit, into a single score on a scale of 1-100. Access to these scores will not be available to students, but will be accessible to all colleges beginning in 2020.
This plan, however, cannot be construed as anything other than fatally flawed. In attempting to quantify something as deeply complex as “adversity” into a numerical score, the College Board performs a social justice narrative that panders to a liberal audience. But an organization like the College Board—which claims to provide scores measuring students’ knowledge—should be run by people intelligent enough to know that loaded terms like “privilege” and “adversity” are based on a myriad of factors that cannot be reduced to a single number.
Moreover, the adversity score fails to account for several factors clearly associated with adversity, including race. Racism is systemic, so many have argued that while not considered as an explicit factor, the fact that the College Board considers in its adversity score students who hail from neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher crime rates, both factors associated with high Black and Latinx populations, includes race as an implicit factor.
This theory is prevalent from opponents of the adversity score as well as its proponents. For instance, Heather Mac Donald ‘78, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes in City Journal that, “at present, thanks to racial preferences, many black high school students know that they don’t need to put in as much scholarly effort as non-‘students of color’ to be admitted to highly competitive colleges. The adversity score will only reinforce that knowledge.” Pundits like Mac Donald know what they are doing: By weaponizing watered-down “liberal” initiatives like the adversity score to argue that black students are not academically prepared for elite colleges, Mac Donald stokes the fires of racial paranoia and provides a pseudo-scientific justification for racism against Black students.
However, racism—like other forms of systemic oppression—relies on both systemic factors and personal prejudices to exist. To acknowledge the system without stating outright that racism is its cause feeds a narrative that racism should not be “called out” and white people, rather than confronting their own biases, may shrug, blame the system, and move on. Additionally, not all racial discrimination would even emerge on the College Board’s new adversity score; for instance, discrimination against Asian Americans and Jewish Americans often relies on warped narratives about higher graduation rates from four-year universities and higher median incomes, two things that would be correlated with greater economic privilege and a lower adversity score.
In announcing the adversity score, the College Board is pandering to those who believe solving systemic oppression happens with the wave of a magic wand—or even, the results of a single presidential election—while giving political fodder to the increasingly-vocal, increasingly-violent white supremacist movement.
So, then, would the adversity score be complete if it considered race as a factor? Alas, no. The adversity score is based on the same pitfall that characterizes the SAT itself: the hubristic notion that factors as complex as intelligence and merit, adversity and privilege can be quantified on a numerical scale.
The College Board has monopolized higher education through its arrogant promise to make complex characteristics like critical thinking skills, acquired knowledge and family income into something simple. Adding “adversity”—perhaps its most vague, generalized approach yet—reduces the complexity of class, race, and intellect from a lively scholarly debate to a single number.
This process has already failed with standardized testing. In announcing its decision to transition to test-optional admissions policies, the University of Chicago cited inequity in scores for low-income and minority students as a primary factor. Scott Jaschick notes in Inside Higher Ed that White and Asian students meet SAT benchmarks at exponentially higher rates than Black, Native, and Latinx test takers, with 70 percent of Asian students and 59 percent of white students meeting reading and mathematics benchmarks compared to just 27 percent of Native students, 31 percent of Latinx students, and 20 percent of Black students.
The adversity score does nothing to rectify these inequities, but it does illustrate that the College Board is aware that the standardized testing industry feeds the systemic racism and classism that keeps low-income and minority students out of elite universities.
Truthfully, I’m not sure what my adversity score would be. My K-12 experience was tumultuous and my high school struggled with abysmal funding, but I was still raised in a stable, middle class family with parents who valued my academic success. However, my opposition to the adversity score rests on the difficulty of quantifying not just my own adversity, but the adversity of everyone else I know: friends who were homeless as high school juniors but attended prestigious preparatory schools; students from bourgeois suburbs with histories of mental illness; those of economic means who still face discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. To assign numerical values to hardship is competitive misery at its peak, the institutionalized actualization of the friend who proudly asserts they slept only three hours after hearing you complain of exhaustion after sleeping six. It’s both illogical and insulting.
Make no mistake: the announcement of the adversity score is the College Board’s thinly-veiled acknowledgement of its own complicity in systemic inequality in the higher education system. This is more than an affirmative action debate. This is deeper than the question of whether low-income students deserve the same higher education opportunities as the rich kids across town. The adversity score is the College Board admitting that the SAT does not serve as an unbiased indicator of student success, knowledge or intelligence. We should take them at their word and we should object to the adversity score. But more importantly, we should object to the College Board’s chokehold on higher education by advocating for a future where academic success is judged by more than a score or an algorithm.