SAT scores have historically been used to determine college readiness by indicating how well or poorly the test taker performed on the math and verbal sections of the universally dreaded standardized test. But now the College Board will be adding a new score to the mix, one that reflects not innate talent, or hard work, or aptitude, but “adversity.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that this so-called adversity score will be calculated “using 15 factors including the crime rate and poverty levels from the student’s high school and neighborhood,” and that “students won’t be told the scores, but colleges will see the numbers when reviewing applications.”
David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, told the WSJ that “there are a number of amazing students who may have scored less but have accomplished more,” and that “we can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”
There’s one little problem: If the purpose of the SAT is to measure a knowledge of math, grammar, reasoning, vocabulary, and ability to perform well on multiple choice tests, then an applicant’s background is not relevant. That background might help shed light on why a student scored how they did (or it might not!) but it cannot change how a student performed on the test. And we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
What this “adversity” factor says to students is that what they achieve is predetermined. It tells those deemed privileged that their success is not really theirs. It conditions the impoverished to go through life believing every opportunity is stacked against them. It only serves to perpetuate the narratives of oppression, and not to help people escape them. This factor, calculated based on a variety of different inputs, is certainly a step above race-based affirmative action, which assumes that everyone’s circumstances are the same within a racial or ethnic group. But it still misses the mark.
It never made much sense for colleges to put so much stock in a test that measures aptitude in only a select few subjects when students in university study not just math and English but art and music and science, among other things. Students of all backgrounds—privileged and underprivileged alike—would be better served if schools took a more holistic approach to applicants and didn’t just look at a set of numbers. Schools would be better served as well, because they would invite a wider array of talents onto campus. No rational admissions officer would be pleased at having inadvertently rejected the next Debussy, David Foster Wallace, or Dali simply because they happened to fumble algebraic equations. Most colleges realize this, and understand that standardized tests offer only a narrow look into a student’s accomplishments. They thus already use other measures to determine acceptance. In that vein, there’s nothing wrong with colleges being made aware of challenges that applicants face. Maybe the student who had zero volunteer hours was taking care of an ailing parent. Maybe the student who has been written up for disciplinary issues was just breaking up a fight. Context is always important, and it only helps people—and admissions officials—make better decisions.
But there are already myriad ways for students to provide this context and for colleges to consider it: in application essays, in notes from guidance counselors in direct letters, in interviews. The SAT has a specific purpose: to measure the ability of students’ academic performance in certain subjects. Its role is not to check the privilege of every student applicant.
There’s a bigger problem, one that is always relevant to, and yet rarely addressed in, conversations of affirmative action. The WSJ article notes that College Board has “worried about income inequality influencing test results for years.” It’s undeniably true that students of lower socioeconomic status struggle in higher education compared with wealthier peers and have lower graduation rates. But the adversity score, like so many affirmative action policies, does nothing to address why there are disparities in scores. Instead it’s a band-aid on a bullet hole.
A better solution would be focusing on programs that help students find tutors and other mechanisms by which they can receive similar advantages to those gained by their more wealthy peers. Pretending there is no disparity helps no one, least of all the disadvantaged.