Adversity Score Editorial Cartoon

Questioning the SAT adversity score

To start off poor and to work one’s way up the social ladder — that is the American Dream. The belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to succeed, regardless of socioeconomic status, has long guided our country’s decisions in many facets of our lives, none more so than education. The ideal view of education is that it gives everyone a fair chance to learn and contribute to society. It is for this reason that the College Board, the company that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), has decided to add in an adversity index as a means of evaluating SAT scores in the context of the test takers’ level of economic and social adversity. Although the adversity index itself is flawed in many ways, the reasoning behind the College Board’s decision to address economic barriers is a step in the right direction.

The adversity score measures the level of disadvantage that students face and quantifies it on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing the most economically privileged and 100 representing the most economically disadvantaged. This score is calculated based on 31 factors in the student’s neighborhood and school environment, including median family income, percentage of households in poverty, percentage of adults without a high school degree and unemployment rates. The adversity score will not change a student’s actual SAT score but will instead be another factor that college admissions officers can consider. The score will be used by 150 colleges in 2019 and will later be available to all colleges in 2020.

The intent behind this adversity score is to allow colleges to diversify their student body without explicitly taking into account race, which is not a factor that goes into the adversity score. According to John Barnhill, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Florida State University, more disadvantaged applicants were admitted when admission officers were able to see the adversity score. 

The adversity score is an acknowledgement by the College Board that students who are in a less fortunate environment do not have the same resources or opportunities to achieve their full potential on the SAT. For example, a student scoring 1300 in a poor household and neighborhood has more academic potential in the long run than a student scoring 1300 with access to extensive tutoring and test preparation. In fact, research from Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University shows that the most disadvantaged students score 784 points on average lower than the most privileged students, based on factors such as income level, parent education level and the neighborhood that the student is from. By adding the adversity score, the College Board is attempting to level the playing field for those who need it most.

It is refreshing to see that the College Board is attempting to fix the gap between the rich and the poor. By adding this extra measure, the College Board will hopefully mitigate the obstacles that disadvantaged students have to overcome. Despite the College Board’s good intentions, there are many concerns of the adversity score. A pressing concern is that the hard work that wealthy students put into their SAT preparation will be disregarded. Many people view the adversity score as punishing the wealthy. After all, the SAT is a major aspect of the college admissions process and can sometimes make or break a college application. However, I do not see this as a major problem with the adversity score because those who have the means will always hold an inherent advantage over the poor. The point of the adversity score is not to punish the rich but rather to make it easier for disadvantaged students, who are already faced with many obstacles. 

Another concern is that the adversity score generalizes students based on broad categories, such as the neighborhood or the school they’re from. The adversity score does not consider individual hardships but rather makes generalizations based on the surrounding environment of the student. A student in a wealthy city may, for example, struggle with many other adverse factors such as abusive parents, alcoholism and so on. None of this will be represented in the singular number of the adversity score. This is a major flaw of the adversity score: the fact that it does not look at the individual differences. However, any numeric score can never capture the nuances of a student’s specific situation. Like the SAT score itself, the adversity score will never and can never capture the true extent of a student’s situation, which is the purpose of college essays and interviews in the admissions process. That being said, I do believe that the adversity score could be significantly improved by focusing more closely on the individual, but this can be remedied by the more detailed parts of the student’s college application. 

The underlying issue that the controversy over the adversity score reveals is the growing tension between the privileged and underprivileged. The addition of the adversity score shows that the College Board is attempting to bridge the growing socioeconomic divide, but part of me wonders whether or not the adversity score will truly make progress in achieving equity. Although there are admirable intentions behind adding the adversity score as well as many benefits, there are better ways that we could help the disadvantaged. For example, instead of only focusing on SAT scores, we should shift our focus to the quality of teaching that disadvantaged students receive from their classrooms. Adding the adversity score is like a band-aid to the problems that poor students face—although it does help, it doesn’t address the deeper issue of students not receiving the quality of education needed. The knowledge gaps that underprivileged students have cannot easily be fixed, and the adversity score does little to close that gap. For example, many low-income students are not taught enough general knowledge to deal with complex topics tested on the SAT. These are the real issues that should be tackled. 

So, although the adversity score is well-intentioned and does have benefits, it doesn’t solve the deeper, real issue of the subpar quality of education that underprivileged students are receiving. The adversity score takes a step in the right direction by acknowledging the problems that the poor face; however, in order to make real meaningful change, it takes more than merely adding an extra measure.

By Raymond Dunn, Opinion editor
Editorial cartoon by Joy Wang