The Adverse Effects of an Adversity Score

The SAT should not implement an adversity score, as it would undermine the purposes of the examination.

By Shaun Cammack

The College Board is implementing an adversity score to quantify the socioeconomic background and privilege of students who take the SAT. It is not the responsibility of the organization to “contextualize” a student’s score with extraneous factors. The SAT is intended to capture a specific metric of the student’s academic capacity, and introducing an adversity score will only serve to make the test less meaningful. And although the adversity score avoids racial language, it operates within the same ideology that promulgates affirmative action in college admissions.

Such ostensibly holistic considerations should be left up to the admissions departments of the universities, though apparently this change comes at the request of some college administrators. I’m not surprised that administrators bent on engineering the ethnic makeup of their student body would want a third party to make this judgement. The authority of the College Board would provide institutional legitimacy and reinforcement of their own ideological stances.

The idea that we must use adversity to contextualize SAT scores is operating on two core assumptions. First, it’s assumed that adversity to the individual can be accurately measured by broad metrics. Just because a person grows up in less-than-ideal circumstances does not necessarily mean the adversity they faced negatively affected them, or that adversity was even present. Equally, just because a person grows up in “privileged” circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean they are advantaged. How can this new score measure the adversity faced by a student who grew up in a nice home in an excellent neighborhood with two wealthy parents who both happened to be abusive alcoholics? Under the College Board’s new adversity score, that student would be considered privileged. There is no privilege in such a life.    

Second, there is an assumption that adversity negatively affects test scores but does not impact the underlying academic ability that the test hopes to measure. Why would adversity not affect a student’s academic ability? If it affects their testing, it’s safe to assume it also affects their studying, homework, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. Having faced adversity or not, the SAT will be a reliable predictor of their academic capacity and college success.

During my undergraduate years, I taught a class titled Strategies for College Success, which catered to second semester first-years who were failing out after one semester. My alma mater, though I love it dearly, had low admissions standards for these students, and there was little I could do to fundamentally enhance their abilities. For most of my students, it wasn’t that they were merely stressed, or had poor time management skills; it was that they shouldn’t have been at the college in the first place.    

Furthermore, it can actually be bad for the student to be placed in a university that has standards far above their ability. They may leave their intended major or drop out of school altogether, disheartened and indebted. It is often better to place a student in a more appropriate school, as a university that teaches to their level will achieve better outcomes. The romantic idea that a less-than-average student will rise to the occasion if only given the opportunity is often not the case.

The College Board’s new adversity score presents the principle of “it’s good enough for what it is.” I find this premise deeply objectionable. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the abilities of a person should be considered only in the context of their immutable characteristics and environmental circumstances. It should not matter where you came from, only what you can do now.

At the end of the day, adversity- and diversity-predicated admissions will likely become an even more common practice. There are consequences to these sorts of considerations, and the sad truth is that it will likely be Asian students who have to compete even harder for admissions, an issue brought to light in the recent discrimination lawsuit against Harvard. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the adversity score has lofty, righteous intentions.