Decisions about admission into college are based on a gamut of factors. Potentially among them: a student’s understanding of parabolas, perihelions and the Reconstruction — that is, his or her academic preparation and performance. But should those decisions also take into account the resourcefulness shown in learning amid challenging circumstances — say, an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood?
The College Board thinks so, and if it had a good tool for measuring each applicant’s environment and perseverance, we’d be applauding today. But it doesn’t, so we aren’t.
The not-for-profit College Board administers the SAT exam to roughly 2 million students every year, and sends results to the nation’s colleges. Last week, the College Board announced that those results will be accompanied by a package of data that includes what national media have been calling an “adversity score.” “Merit is all about resourcefulness,” the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman, told The New York Times. “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given.”
How does the College Board define, and purport to assign a precise number to, adversity? It gathers data on factors ranging from the poverty level and crime rate in a student’s neighborhood, to the information about the high school that the student attends. Data about the student’s environment, some of it drawn from community census data and some of it from sources the College Board hasn’t identified, includes a neighborhood’s median family income, percentage of households on food stamps, percentage of single-parent families and so on. The data yields an “overall disadvantage level” of between 1 and 100. Scores above 50 indicate students who come from disadvantaged environments. Under 50 indicates students who come from a place of privilege.
Note, though, that this measure isn’t about the student, it’s about the student’s habitat. Problem already.
What about the September applicant whose family moved in August from one kind of environment to a very different neighborhood? What about the parents who scrimp to rent the cheapest house in a decent school district — is their child therefore “privileged”?
We’ve supported weighing a student’s socioeconomic status in admissions decisions: Knowing that a young person persevered against difficult circumstances tells a college something very important about him or her. Many college officials have told us they do this — although they’re looking at an individual student’s circumstances.
The recent bribery scandal involving celebrities getting their kids into elite schools has stoked the debate over the fairness of college admissions. Wealthier families pay for consultants and tutors. Leveling the playing field by factoring in a student’s socioeconomic background can, in principle, make the system fairer.
But there are too many holes in the College Board’s initiative for us to give it a passing grade. The board hasn’t fully explained its methodology for calculating its “overall disadvantage level,” and how much weight it gives to each of the factors that play into that score. Are those factors the best indicators of a student’s environmental hardships? Who knows — but that score might determine an applicant’s fate. The whole exercise smacks of false precision — it suggests that each student’s nonacademic background, measured by no personal data whatsoever, can be squeezed into one of 100 little boxes.
We’re also troubled by the board’s decision to release student adversity scores only to colleges, not to the students themselves. An applicant may not have an inherent right to read a teacher’s letter of recommendation. But that student should be able to challenge, or amplify upon, a score compiled from databases.
The board is planning to offer its initiative to 150 schools this year, and then expand it in 2020. But students, parents and colleges would be better off if the College Board went back to the drawing board. The college admissions process needs more transparency, not less. This secret-sauce solution will only breed more public mistrust that college admissions is a rigged racket.
This editorial originally appeared in the May 21, 2019 edition of the Chicago Tribune. So what is a family to do in a place like Asheville, knowing what we now know about the College Board’s adversity score? The choice is the same as it’s always been…students should work hard, get good grades, set goals, stay involved, and max out their test prep scores.