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Work & School Quantifying privilege: the College Board’s “adversity index”

Jun. 5, 2019
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The notorious SAT and ACT are on the minds of the high school class of 2020, and as I tap my pencil against my chin, deciding whether the narrative tone of the SAT reading passage in front of me is best described as “condescending” or “supercilious,” I can’t help but wonder how I will score on the real thing. Better yet, whether my background will justify this score to colleges. The College Board has recently announced the creation of the “Environmental Context Dashboard” or as people are coming to refer to it, the “Adversity Index”—a quantitative way of measuring the hardships a student has faced, ergo contextualizing their SAT scores. 

Factors such as parents’ marital status, neighbourhood housing values, and the free lunch rate at a student’s school are factored into the generation of this score on a scale from 0 to 100. Any number over 50 indicates disadvantage and any below indicates privilege.

The College Board has been widely criticized for ignoring race in the production of adversity scores, but believe it or not, for this approach I applaud the College Board. If they had assigned numbers to the “adversity” (read: racism) children from different ethnic groups have experienced growing up, apart from being philosophically problematic in itself, hell would have broken loose. Heck, the SAT might even have been “cancelled.” With affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions being heavily scrutinized, some hail these scores as a way of acknowledging socioeconomic disparities related to race without explicitly mentioning race, which is true. But the unfortunate truth of the matter is that a white child and a black child living in the same neighborhood with the same family environments are received by the world in dramatically different ways. Where are the figures that take into account police brutality? And disproportionate incarceration? And being told to go back to your country despite being born three miles away?

Educational writer Rick Kahlenberg said in defense of the adversity index, “Even rough measures of socioeconomic disadvantage are better than no measure at all.” I disagree, though. While Kahlenberg has his heart in the right place—the largest determinant of SAT scores is household income—there are massive error margins associated with quantitatively aggregating data that should be reviewed on a case-to-case basis. 

As expressed in anecdotal sentiments from countless journalists, the main concern is that these figures will not take into account the true nature of the hardships students may have experienced in their lives. Having divorced parents gives students an extra few points, yet living with unhappily married or abusive parents is arguably less preferable. As pointed out by SAT coach Brooke Hanson, higher housing values often correlate with increased poverty rates, depending on the demographic region. The hypothetical but totally viable list goes on. This point system appears not “rough” but fundamentally flawed in a way that has been hastily overlooked in a feeble attempt to salvage a clearly problematic means of measuring scholastic ability.

Now, students and parents can not see these scores. The aim of this intentional lack of transparency seems to be reducing student interference with their own adversity scores (after all, if you’re multicultural and speak English at home, but see that citing English as a second language garners you a few extra points, what are you likely to do?). Yet in reality this does nothing to ease the concern that rich parents will simply game the new system. As the shockingly unsurprising college admissions scandal showed America, affluent parents have the means to fabricate their children’s profiles (whether feigning athleticism or learning difficulties) in ways the least privileged Americans could never dream of. Journalist Derek Newton noted, “If an official address in a poor neighborhood will get you a bump, there’s going to be a raft of suspicious and conveniently timed address changes,” all of which stand on the right side of the law. All of which are perfectly feasible and result in the underprivileged, as usual, being underserved. 

A large mistake in the discussion of these adversity scores is the assumption that their primary objective is to make college admissions more fair to students. Make no mistake, these scores were introduced to preserve the usage of SATs in college admissions by dismissing one of its largest criticisms: that test scores are more representative of privilege than intelligence. The College Board created the index to be used with SAT scores. What does this mean? Disadvantaged students who don’t take standardized tests will have no such adversity index, nor will those who take the more popular ACT. If both the College Board and universities utilizing these adversity indices view them as an accurate way of representing the disadvantage that students face, why aren’t they used for all students applying to universities? To me, the College Board’s environmental context dashboard is a convenient and self-serving way to feign concern about the unfairness of the test; after all, what’s more fashionable than inclusivity? And in the process of essentially rebranding itself as a test that “cares about you, one tailored to every individual,” the College Board conserves the SAT and the millions of dollars it generates each year. Whether or not this was the College Board’s intention, that’s what it looks like.

In the ideal meritocratic society, the primary purpose of standardized testing would be to identify bright young minds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore give them a leg up. But as we see, it fails at this job. Quantifying life experiences seems eerily similar to a dystopian Black Mirror episode, and for all our sakes, I suggest the College Board reconsider its oversimplified algorithm.