Each year over two million students sit for the SAT, an exam that tests for aptitude in both math and English. The scores are then reported to colleges and universities and added to the applicant’s file which also include transcripts, letters of recommendations, and the Common Application itself. This past week the College Board, the company that administers the test, has announced that it will be adding an adversity rating to its report. The College Board will collect this data based on an algorithm that has yet to be shared with the public. The basic gist of the ratings is the following: On a scale of 1-100, students will be scored based on the adversity they have faced in their lives. Scores above 50 will indicate that a student comes from a more disadvantaged neighborhood where there is a higher crime and poverty rate. The score will also include the relative quality of the student’s high school and the percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch. The intent of the adversity scores is to, in some way, level the playing field and create a fairness across the diverse socioeconomic and educational backgrounds from where students come. The adversity score would in no way change the students’ scores, instead it is meant to provide context to that score for admission officers across the country as they try and build diverse classes.
It is no accident that this new initiative comes on the heels of one of the most divisive court cases of our time. The legality of affirmative action is being questioned in the case against Harvard University. Eventually this case will make its way to the Supreme Court and based on the current political climate, there is a chance that affirmative action as we know it may be a thing of the past. The College Board, it seems, has placed this adversity rating into action as a way for college admission officers to still have the necessary data to be able to create those diverse classes that are so important for a college campus.
At first glance, this initiative seems to be fair, just, and maybe even a step in the right direction. It is no secret that the wealthy have an advantage when it comes to standardized testing- they have better schools, the luxury to pay for tutors, and just recently reported the money to pay for extended time. These discrepancies need to be dealt with and the hope is that the adversity ratings would do just that. But once you delve deeper into the implications of the ratings, there are calls to be concerned and the debates in the higher education community have only just begun.
According to Marten Roorda, CEO of ACT, another non profit organization that offers an alternative to the SAT’s, argues that because the student and family will not be made aware of the score, they will also not be able to confirm and approve the validity of the adversity score sent to colleges. This especially does not sit right with Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race who puts the adversity ratings into context with his own personal story. As a young black man, his parents worked tirelessly in order to afford a home on the white side of his “de facto segregated New Jersey suburb”. His adversity score would have been lower because he had better educational opportunities than his friends who lived on the other side of town. But he endured a different kind of adversity, one that cannot be measured by income. Everyday on his walk to and from school, he was victim of casual racism that was present in his neighborhood. He argues that the adversity rating can perhaps speak to a student’s socioeconomic situation, but a zip code is clearly not the only determiner of hardships. There are other adversities that children face that are not taken into consideration. What about a premature death of a parent, incarceration of a family member, or racism? Also omitted in this rating is the student who faces learning differences and mental or physical illness that impact both their social and academic life. It also does not consider the hardship of living with ASD or the disadvantages of living in a home with an atypical family structure even when living in a more affluent zip code. These students face their own adversity that cannot be measured through an algorithm; they should not be ignored or excluded. Williams eloquently states that “no two lives are commensurate and not all adversity can be taken into account. But the College Board is attempting to dictate which forms matter and which do not.”
And we all know that people like to manipulate the system as we continue to watch the headlines on the Varsity Blues scandal unfold. What is to prevent someone to report an address of someone who lives in a poorer neighborhood or report a lower family income to increase the chances of a higher adversity score with the hope to explain a lower SAT score?
The ACT has already announced that they will not follow in the College Board’s footsteps. Roorda believes that admission officers “are capable of assessing students’ hurdles without an adversity score, and that assessing an individual students’ grit is a much better than neighborhood adversity.”
Instead of merely attaching this arbitrary rating, perhaps the College Board should focus on reforming the test so that it is not culturally biased and it is more accessible to all students who are required to take it. For this reason, I applaud those schools that have gone test optional. They understand that each student is more than just a number-whether it be his GPA, test scores, and now sadly these adversity ratings.