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Here’s What’s Wrong With The SAT “Adversity Score”

Late last week saw the publication of numerous reports and opinion pieces on the SAT’s new Environmental Context Dashboard.

The College Board, the non-profit that administers the SAT, announced on Thursday that it will begin quantifying the level of disadvantage students taking the SAT have faced throughout high school. Along with a student’s SAT scores, colleges will now receive a separate ranking from one to 100, where one indicates extreme privilege, and 100 means severe adversity.

This Dashboard, or “adversity score,” is calculated based on thirty-one pieces of information on students’ neighborhoods on the one hand, and high schools on the other. In both cases, data considered include median family income, average education levels of residents/parents, unemployment rates, etc. Crime data is also considered when it comes to evaluating a student’s neighborhood.

None of the information that determines the so-called adversity score concerns a student directly. Only the two environments—neighborhood and high school—are considered. Race and ethnicity are not taken into account.

While some admissions officers have applauded the College Board’s plan to place SAT scores in the context of a student’s environment, the new adversity score has also met with a great deal of criticism.

Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown, told the Washington Post:

“We have so much personal data on all of our applicants that we don’t feel the need for a tool like this. In this era of ‘data analytics’ I guess this is one that could be helpful, but to be honest I still see college admissions as ‘an art, not a science’ so I’m prone to resist quantifying things too much.”

In other words, not only is the adversity score potentially redundant (admissions committees already have data on environmental factors), but it also risks focusing attention on a student’s environment rather than on the student.

A related criticism the College Board faces concerns its decision not to consider race in determining a student’s relationship to his or her environment. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams describes his experience as a black man growing up in a majority white neighborhood in New Jersey:

“There is no metric to take into account the casual racism that I had to navigate in my neighborhood, a difficulty I was keenly aware friends of mine on the more socially cohesive and nurturing black side of town were often able to avoid.”

Williams sums up:

“And so the dehumanizing message of the new adversity index is that America’s young people are nothing but interchangeable sociological points of data—and the jagged complexity of an individual life somehow can be sanded down, quantified and fairly contrasted.”

The fact that the adversity score fails to account for individual factors presents other problems as well. How meaningful will rankings be for middle-class students—or even students from wealthy families—with a parent who suffers from mental illness or addiction? To what extent can such an index describe the environment of an army kid whose family moves every year or two, and can it account for the strain that such a transient life places on the student?

Another question currently being asked concerns the credibility of the College Board when it comes to fairly evaluating privilege in an unbiased way. After all, it has been widely documented that the SAT favors certain demographics over others. This, of course, is the problem that the new adversity score was designed to address, but the task of quantifying hardship would perhaps be better left to a group with a better track record of assessing students in an unbiased fashion.

The College Board’s credibility is further undermined when you consider that the adversity score itself is essentially a concession that the SAT is not fair—the need for an adversity score underlines the fact that SAT scores only make sense in the context of a student’s relative privilege.

In other words, the College Board has finally acknowledged that the SAT fails at what it has always purported to do: evaluate a student’s aptitude or achievement.

If the College Board cannot design a test that fairly assesses students across socioeconomic lines—and the whole point of standardized tests like the SAT is to see how students stack up against each other—then it may be time for more schools to begin moving away from the SAT. If the ultimate goal is a holistic admissions process that considers not only a student’s test scores but also his or her background, then why not leave this task to the admissions officers, who, unlike the College Board, have access to extensive personal information and even essays?

The admissions process is more of an art than a science because the complexity of a student’s life is not reducible to census data.

If you need help with the college application process, our team of Ivy League consultants is ready to provide you with the guidance you need.
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