Recently, headline after headline trumpeted that the College Board, which administers the SAT, eliminated students’ so-called “adversity score,” which was supposed to inform college admissions officials about the challenges students face or don’t face in their schools and neighborhoods. But did they really get rid of it?
The adversity score, a term that College Board officials hated, is a single score that a student received based on factors at his or her high school and neighborhood such as advanced course offerings at the school and the crime rate in the neighborhood.
The adversity score was not added to a student’s SAT score, but would accompany the SAT score, supposedly to help college officials discern those students who had overcome obstacles and who were able to do more with less.
When the College Board piloted the adversity score at a number of colleges and universities last year, criticisms were immediate and sharp.
First, the College Board was opaque about just how the score was derived, with the public kept in the dark about the methodology used to calculate the score.
Second, the adversity score was based on general factors, not a student’s actual life experiences.
A student who lived in a relatively crime-free middle-class neighborhood and who attended a high school with lots of college-prep courses would get a low adversity score, even if he or she had to overcome overwhelming individual adversities such as anorexia, bullying, child abuse, or learning disabilities.
Third, critics charged that the adversity score, which was supposed to be a tool to address racial diversity in higher education, was actually biased against ethnic groups such as Asian Americans.
In 2018, the Asian American Coalition for Education, an alliance of more than 200 Asian-American organizations, sent the College Board a letter condemning the adversity score.
The letter said that Asian-American families “endure tremendous hardships and make great sacrifices so they can move to good school districts and send their kids to good schools.”
“Without privileged background,” the letter pointed out, “these families practice the principles of resilience, financial prudence, family responsibilities, and hard work,” and the “Adversity Score will surely punish their children, who have already been harmed by racial preferences in college admissions.”
While the College Board is trying to deflect such criticism by dropping the adversity score, it still wants to have its cake and eat it too.
Thus, the College Board will still make available to colleges a tool called “Landscape,” which is basically a similar set of high school and neighborhood factors with scores or rankings attached to each factor, but not amalgamated into a single final adversity score.
The Landscape factors include whether a student lives in a rural, suburban or urban neighborhood, median household incomes, crime rates, the number of single-parent families, the size of the school’s senior class, the percentage of low-income students at the school, Advanced Placement course availability and participation, and other data.
The key point to understand, however, is that a college or university can still add up all these various factor scores to get a single adversity score.
Although College Board head David Coleman says, “The idea of a single score was wrong,” he admits, “Sure, you can combine any information in an application however you see fit.”
The Washington Post notes, “nothing would prevent a college from doing that arithmetic.”
Thus, aside from a bit more transparency on the factor scores, many of the criticisms of the previous adversity score still apply to the new Landscape scores.
As the Asian American Coalition for Education wrote in its letter to David Coleman and the College Board: “Your organization’s role in propelling the educational part of the American Dream should be to provide fair and objective measurement of each applicant’s college readiness regardless of one’s extrinsic circumstances such as his or her zip code.”
Whether it is the adversity score or the new Landscape scores, the Asian-American group is correct that we should not be using tools that will result in “social engineering to normalize every American child’s future.”
–Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and former president of the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges.