The College Board Adversity Score: A Middle Class Disaster

Max Dunat | @m_dunattt

Yesterday, the College Board, which administers the SAT and associated exams, announced that it has begun to incorporate an “adversity score,” which measures socioeconomic background, into its test scoring regimen. This additional score runs from a scale of zero to one hundred; it considers factors fifteen ranging from the education quality and academic rigor of the applicant’s high school to crime and poverty statistics from the applicant’s neighborhood. Does it have any merits?

The move by the College Board comes on the heels of the recent college admissions scandal, which implicated dozens of parents and officials in fabricating test scores and bribing administrators of top American universities. In a statement to CNN, College Board’s chief executive officer David Coleman said: “there is talent and potential waiting to be discovered in every community”. He added that “no single test score should ever be examined without paying attention to this critical context”.

Testing Backlash

Standardized testing has drawn a swath of criticism in recent years. The SAT has been drowned with suggestions of racial bias, and New York City officials are considering scrapping entrance exams for the city’s public specialized high schools after the public outcry regarding staggeringly-low admission rates among black and Latino students. At the same time, the current college-admissions process, particularly among upper-tier universities, has been chastised for its use of race-based affirmative action admissions. This is evident in the lawsuit regarding Harvard’s alleged bias against Asian-American applicants.

The College Board’s move seems to be an attempt to reconcile these two critiques. On one hand, it would provide socioeconomic context to test performance that a raw score can’t reveal. On the other hand, it notably excludes race from the data, which some have suggested may be a preemptive measure in case of a legal challenge to race-based affirmative action from the conservative Supreme Court. Although the College Board’s goals are noble, the policy’s lack of transparency, reductionist view of lived experience, and neglect for key factors aside from socioeconomic status in admissions will harm middle-income families and fail to create a more just process.

Affirmative Action Today

The most important part of this policy by far is its shift from racial to socioeconomic preference in college admissions. The modern system of affirmative action admissions was set into motion by Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In this case, Allan Bakke claimed that medical schools rejected him twice because of quotas. The court ultimately ruled that while quotas are unfair, using race as an acceptance factor to increase diversity is not.

However, times have changed since then. While a majority of Americans support programs to increase diversity on college campuses, there is no consensus on what form these programs should take. Following Fisher v. University of Texas, which concerned a specific type of affirmative action program seeking to boost diversity, 65% of Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision that race-based admissions were warranted in at least some cases.

Additionally, many states—California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Washington—have banned race-based affirmative action programs at their public universities entirely. Even still, in states like California, the public university system has managed to keep diversity at the forefront of its mission. In 2016, 39% of the students accepted to any of the University of California’s nine campuses consisted of African-American and Latino students, the most diverse year yet. The LA Times adds that this was largely a result of giving “give greater weight to students who show resilience in the face of hardship,” which could help explain why the adversity score helped raise racial diversity in schools like Florida State despite being a seeming shift away from explicit racial preference.

Is the Adversity Score a Remedy?

The College Board’s program varies widely from the UC program in two key ways. First, the University of California’s policy has consisted primarily of ramped up recruiting, with officials visiting schools and urging high-achieving students who would otherwise be discouraged from applying. The College Board approach is the exact opposite; it is replacing the holistic view of individual applicants with one number that can supposedly convey the same amount of lived experience to a school official.

In addition, while a legal moratorium on affirmative action has at least some guarantee of enforcement at government institutions, the College Board’s policy makes no such promises. The system’s total lack of transparency makes it difficult to judge the Board’s intentions. For one, students are unable to access their own score, which the College Board only provides to school officials. Even more concerning is that the methodology to calculate the score is a secret; no one outside of the College Board knows how or why the algorithm comes up with its adversity values or where much of the data is coming from. As a result, the adversity score could be even more discriminatory on racial grounds than any current programs.

The Meritocracy Myth

Even if the College Board’s intentions are pure, affirmative action programs are just one program among many that affect diversity on college campuses; for example, legacy admissions, perhaps a greater offender in skewing the racial and socioeconomic makeup of college campuses, would go totally unsolved for by such a policy.

The benefits of affirmative action admissions may disproportionately fall on African-American and Latino students, which many say grants undue preference to minority students over white ones with a similar socioeconomic background. However, in his 2012 article, The Myth of American Meritocracy, Ron Unz explains in detail how the scales tip the other way among high-income families; Jewish students primarily benefit at the expense of non-Jewish white and Asian applicants.

Disparate Impact

Looking at academic competition data from decades prior, Unz observes that Jewish academic achievement has fallen dramatically since 2000. The most striking example of this—in the 1970s, Jews made up 44% of the US Math Olympiad Team, while Asians constituted 0%. In the 2010s, Asians made up 72% of the team with Jews at 0%. Similar trends were present across Putnam Math Winners and Science Olympiad Winners.

However, this drop in high school achievement has not seen a parallel in matriculation rates at Ivy League schools. In fact, between 1980 and 2011, significant drops in non-Jewish white enrollment (63% at Yale, 69% at Columbia, etc.) have been matched with notable increases in Jewish enrollment (25% at Yale, 45% at Columbia, and notably no decreases anywhere). Unz does not ascribe a particular reason for this statistical anomaly. But his findings should raise questions about the “merit” of college acceptances across the board.

Legacy Admissions

Unz’s column has received its fair share of academic criticism, mostly regarding his methodology for counting Jewish students. However, even disregarding the solely ethnic aspect, college admissions do swing highly in favor of high-income, “old money” families whose parents were able to attend the same school. Thomas Espenshade of Princeton University found that having parents that attended the same elite institution was equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT; this is comparable to the 185-point boost Hispanic students receive under affirmative action programs.

Is it the College Board’s responsibility to lobby for changes in every elite university’s admissions policy? Of course not. But by promoting a system that attempts to quantify privilege, it is complicit in harming the mostly Asian and white middle-income families that will have too much privilege to qualify for adversity points but not enough to qualify for easy legacy admissions that make up a significant portion of top-tier university admissions.

“Oppression Olympics”

In addition, the College Board’s policy provides convenient avenues for abuse. At worst, families could provide false addresses to increase their adversity score and up their odds for admissions. Most recently, an OSSE investigation implicated 30% of the student body at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC in a case of residency fraud where parents falsified addresses within district borders to be able to attend the school.

There is no reason to think “reverse residency fraud” could not happen in this case, as families with significantly more resources at their disposal than many of these high school cases rush to increase their odds of admission. Of course, we can deal with such incidents, but with such a high incentive to commit fraud, it would be costly.

On the less extreme end, the Wall Street Journal suggests that middle-income families might make choices detrimental to their short-term interests. They may stay in a lower-income neighborhood instead of moving to a wealthier one or send their child to a public high school instead of a private one to avoid the College Board giving them a label of “privileged”, for example. Due to this, middle-income families would bear the brunt of this policy; poor families would have a higher adversity score and well-off families could fabricate one without sacrificing their immediate well-being.

Punishing the Middle Class

At the end of the day, middle-income families will most likely be the only losers of the recent College Board decision. For the last thirty years, colleges have priced the middle class out of attending university. Since 1990, the “expected family contribution,” or what the government finds each family can afford to pay for college given all other expenses, has only increased drastically for the top quartile of college students, falling for the bottom three.

In 1990, much of the lower middle class (the second lowest quartile) were typically only short $500 dollars in covering the cost of college—in 2016, that figure skyrocketed to $7,665. In addition, federal financial aid primarily targets the bottom quartile, and only the most elite universities meet a family’s full financial need with their own aid programs.

Perpetuating the Existing System

In the best case, the adversity score would lead to more of the same old—colleges counting on donations from the families of legacy admits to fund financial aid programs for their affirmative action admits, for better or worse. However, with the increased incentive and opportunity to defraud the College Board to increase adversity and consequently, one’s chances of admission, the middle class will find college to be a decreasingly attainable goal in the long run. This will create a campus community with a stark socioeconomic divide unrepresentative of America’s diversity.

In addition, the adversity score falls short in the same regard every other admissions policy has fallen short: by failing to take a holistic view of the applicant as an individual. Critics who point out that one SAT score alone is in no way representative of all the achievements and facets of a person—any suggestion that two SAT scores can suddenly capture the full breadth is laughable. The content of one’s personal statement and interview are way more revealing of an applicant’s struggles and successes than any score, adversity or otherwise. By attempting to reduce 18 years of lived experience down to one number, the College Board is pitting applicants against each other not just on academic grounds but socioeconomic ones as well.


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