Quantifying Humanity: SAT’s new “Adversity Score” Raises Questions

Every few weeks another bombshell hits the Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and inboxes of college admissions professionals across the globe, and this week it is College Board’s announcement of their new scoring system that attempts to contextualize the lives of the students behind their SAT scores. Ideally the guidance counselor recommendation letter, teacher recommendation letters, and multitude of essays are supposed to provide this critical background information, but humans like to try to squeeze humanity into quantitative, measurable data points, like trying to get my son’s Minions sleeping bag back into the flimsy sack from which it was once born and shall never return.

While the intent to recognize that students are approaching the college applications endeavor from a variety of positions of relative privilege or hardship is noble and essential, clearly the creation and use of this system feels, at best, kind of yucky for students on all points of the adversity-privilege continuum.

How do we distill the hills and valleys of anybody’s life down to a number?

The Wall Street Journal says that College Board will be providing admissions committees (but not students or parents) with a score that represents various factors in that student’s life, including crime rates and poverty levels in their neighborhoods and high schools. The scores range from 0 for the most privileged applicants to 100 for students encountering countless and significant roadblocks to progress and success, with 50 as average. Will the revelation of this factor create a new kind of competition in which families encourage their applicants to enhance their hardships rather than strengths? Will junior year parent meetings begin to sound like family reunions where relatives semi-sympathetically compare aching hips, swelling prostates, and throbbing bunions?

My biggest question: how did College Board define average? We know adversity when we see it: students from groups who have been under-represented in higher education in the past, from low-income families living in areas with high crime, under-funded schools, and few visible glimmers of hope or encouragement. We know privilege when we see it: students from families who can comfortably afford expensive private colleges even after investing in independent schools, test prep, and independent consultants, admittedly, like me. What about the vast, murky gray area in the middle? Doug goes to a public high school in a suburb of Des Moines rated 7/10 on GreatSchools.com. He thinks his guidance counselor is maybe the one with short brown hair. It has taken her three years to schedule meetings with the 500 students in her A-C group. He’s played soccer since kindergarten, but he didn’t make Varsity this year. The district just cut his main interest, photography, from the arts curriculum. Dad, a middle management insurance salesman, was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Mom is a nurse. Older brother lives in residence at a care facility for young adults with special needs. Where does Doug fall on the adversity-privilege continuum?

The reality is that an SAT score signifies not just college readiness as a result of three years of high school educational achievement and ability; it represents a lifetime of experiences, influences, challenges, love, abuse, pain, and support that a child has endured and enjoyed since birth. While the contextual score is an attempt to acknowledge this truth, its use still doesn’t get to the roots of our societal problems related to our flawed educational system and their obvious solutions:

  • More funding for public education
  • Public preschool and full day kindergarten everywhere
  • Public schools need more teachers and better pay
  • Public schools need many, many more mental health and guidance counselors, also receiving better pay
  • Higher standards and goals for public education in all districts, towns, counties
  • Better public support for struggling parents – housing, income, health care, mental health – so that they can be the parents they want to be for their kids

Although we at McMillan Education acknowledge that our services are largely available to privileged families, we are also committed to and proud of our pro bono work with students from Boston public schools through the BUILD non-profit organization and with US military veterans. We greatly enjoy the work we do sharing our expertise and experience with students facing significant adversities in their lives. The adversity score could be a very important and helpful factor in helping admissions committees understand the extra challenges these applicants had to overcome before even completing and submitting college applications.

We, like our colleagues in the professional organizations IECA and NACAC, agree that there is a problem regarding the inequities of access to higher education for students from varying backgrounds. Ideally a truly holistic application review would reveal these inequities and require readers to take them to heart when making decisions. However, as application numbers continue to rise and readers must devise the most efficient methods possible of moving through thousands of applications, a score might draw their attention better than a holistic review might. But a score at the end of a student’s twelve-year educational journey seems like too little too late.

Humans like cold, hard data. It helps them take the emotion out of a decision. But humanity is not logical or clean or tidy or neat or sensible. Human existence is messy, and the United States’s higher education application and admission system is incredibly messy. College Board’s contextual score is a band aid, but a band aid cannot stanch the flow of a gaping wound.

About The Author

Amy Christie, M.A.