We all thought those online quizzes
that give you a score based on “how privileged you are” were funny. Except now,
the score is real—and it will affect your life dramatically if you’re an
anxious high schooler applying to college.
A new report by The Wall Street Journal describes the efforts of The College Board, the private organization behind the SAT, to implement an “adversity score” to track the hardship of a test-taker’s circumstances.
The adversity score will consider “15 factors,” according to
the report, including
the student’s socioeconomic status, the neighborhood crime rate, and parental
Race won’t explicitly be a factor, so the College Board can
avoid lawsuits over racial discrimination and preferences, which are illegal by
federal statute. However, scholars who have commented on the new feature have
acknowledged that “the purpose is to get to race without using race,” in
the words of Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center of
Education and the Workforce.
Notably, students will not be told what their adversity
score is, thereby rendering them oblivious to a critical factor in the college
admissions process—and powerless to address any perceived inaccuracy.
This policy change comes at a time when SAT opposition movements have become increasingly vocal, and college admissions has come under heightened scrutiny due to the recent college bribery scandal involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.
Of course, many colleges and universities already have their
own ways of determining how underprivileged a student is, and accordingly, how
much they should consider these factors in admitting said student. There is, in
fact, an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University for using exactly this sort
of “privilege scale,” of which race
is a factor, according to the plaintiffs.
But the addition of the adversity score on the SAT is the
boldest and most explicit move yet by the top college admissions gatekeeper in
the country to attempt to pre-empt a student’s ability to control his own
narrative when applying to college.
Only a few of the 15 factors used to determine a student’s
adversity score have been revealed. But it’s unlikely that any of them will
include irregular hardships, such as “My father died when I was little” or “I
was bullied in middle school.”
The College Board’s overreaching attempt to determine what
constitutes “adversity” for millions upon millions of high school students in
America will inevitably capture only certain visible, easily researchable
fractions of a student’s experience—a small portion of who they really
After all, the aspects that usually affect students’ lives
the most are not easily researchable and are not stored in the public databases
the College Board plans to mine. The sweeping, collective generalizations this
adversity score will make about a person will hinder a student’s ability to
craft his own story and advocate for himself.
Imagine, for example, that you are a high school student
writing a college essay about your service trip to Costa Rica. If you had an
adversity score of 20 (a low adversity score), the admissions officer might
question your intentions or the privilege you had to go to Costa Rica.
But if you had an adversity score of 80 (a high adversity
score), the admissions officer might be skeptical that you even went on the
trip, uncertain about how you could afford such an endeavor.
The adversity score has the potential to invite all kinds of
unwelcome stereotypes to creep into the college-admissions process, factors
that the student cannot quell or control, since he doesn’t know his own adversity
score in the first place.
The score will also homogenize college applications and stifle
real diversity in the name of artificial, surface-level “diversity.” Once
students (and perhaps more importantly, parents of students) figure out what
factors the College Board emphasizes in their adversity score, they will seek
to emphasize only those parts of themselves that fit into the College Board’s
A unitary and opaque algorithm designed to explain the full
breadth of your circumstances doesn’t sound like real diversity at all. It sounds
like social engineering.
Underprivileged Students Deserve Help?
One defense of the adversity score centers on the fact that
it will help uplift applicants from poor or underprivileged backgrounds, by
showing that their somewhat lower SAT score can be attributed to meager
It may well be true that schools should factor in a
student’s circumstances in their selection process, but it is not the College
Board’s job to decide whose life is more difficult than another’s, especially
without personally consulting the student.
Rather, it is the student’s job to use the personal
statement to highlight his best qualities in the most challenging of
circumstances. An adversity score would pigeonhole a student before he even gets
the chance to speak for himself.
The absurd thing about this whole initiative is that the
College Board was founded and still functions primarily as a test-takingservice. When people take tests, they
should not expect the bar to be set lower for them. But the College Board is
now moving the goalposts for every person
who takes the SAT, thus betraying the very purpose of its main
Despite the anti-SAT brouhaha that has emerged over the past
few years, an objective standard of merit is still necessary to conduct a
functioning college-admissions system. There must be a way for colleges to
adjudicate between students with similar grades at different schools. Otherwise,
they risk admitting a student who would not fit intellectually with the rest of
For a long time, the College Board defended the SAT as the test to fit this role of objective gatekeeper. It’s simply not possible to take this argument seriously if the SAT’s own parent organization says it needs an “adversity balancer.”
The SAT is not a perfect predictor of scholastic capability, but there’s a strong case to be made that is a necessary feature of a societally beneficial college-admissions system. The College Board just gave up on defending that argument—and with it, the rationale for the relevance of its own test.
Source material can be found at this site.