Demographics Are Not Your Destiny: The Problem with the SAT’s “Adversity Score”

By Sophia Aigner

For a plethora of students across America, numbers mean everything. From grade point averages, to class rankings, to the infamous standardized test scores, it has become increasingly apparent that education and success are defined by points rather than old fashioned “merit.” To make matters worse, last Thursday, the College Board announced that it would add another number to the mix: an “Adversity Score.”

In order to capture a student’s socioeconomic background and to provide further context about his or her SAT score, the College Board will assess the environmental factors that surround a student’s academic and home life—including neighborhood crime rates, housing values, divorce rates, the community’s average educational attainment, and poverty levels. All of these factors will be scored on a 100 point scale; a score north of 50 indicates an inordinate amount of adversity while anything below that benchmark is a seeming indicator of privilege. Ultimately, colleges will see this “disadvantage level” score, but students will not.

Of course, the newfound emphasis on educational equity undoubtedly stems from the College Scandal debacle that occurred (and is still in litigation) at the beginning of 2019. Affluent celebrities, like Laurie Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, as well as other parents were exposed for bribing test officials to illegally alter their children’s standardized test scores so that colleges would accept their applications. The nation, outraged by this breach, is now seeing the beginning of college admission reform within the SAT. However, rather than breathing a sigh of relief, many are calling into question the fairness of the new and appending “adversity scores.”

So that brings us to the pressing question: Should we rate students based on their level of privilege, on top of their actual SAT scores?

Well, the short answer is no, absolutely not. But, if I may, I’d like to elaborate in a longer explanation. You see, what constitutes privilege and disadvantage can be entirely counterintuitive; there is no unit of measure that accurately captures the complex texture of a student’s life. A 100 point score cannot—and will not—evaluate the tolls of day-to-day racism that many students experience, nor will it assess the psychological damage of having an alcoholic and abusive parent. And it certainly does not take into account a student like myself, who has two college educated parents (check!), who lives in a wealthy community (check!), who goes to a highschool with a 97% graduation rate (check!), but has also suffered from extreme anxiety all of my life. No two lives are congruent to one another, and yet, the College Board is trying to make this so by broadinizing and oversimplifying a lifetime of adversity.

The fact of the matter is that we can’t define a person’s life experiences by a number; for if we do, we are dehumanizing the young people of America, and allowing them to think that their adversity isn’t good enough. Although the College Board is well intentioned with its attempted reform, it is actually playing into the hands of our already unjust academic system. Ironically, just a few months ago, the barriers of the College Board were so thin that the wealthy could easily breach the system and give their children unfair advantages. However, now, the problem seems to be the exact opposite—these same barriers are now impenetrable to the point where they will end up doing more harm than good. This “adversity” buffer was put into place to help those who have been cheated by the wealthy, but ultimately, it will end up having opposite effects.

Still, the issue still lacks a solution. So, what do we do? Well, in my opinion, we should stop  highlighting and rewarding our disadvantages and instead fix them. All too often, we glaze over problems and give a weak acknowledgement that they exist, but nothing more. This time, we cannot let this happen. Let’s use this experience to advocate on the behalf of education reform, as well as admission reform. Better yet, why don’t we eliminate the SAT altogether? I’m serious! Colleges need to realize that any score—whether it be from the ACT, SAT, or an AP exam—does not determine a person’s worth or predict a future success rate. Our society has entered a realm of delusion where we think the numbers tell all. We are truly doing young Americans a disservice by convincing them that they are just a data point up against the rest of nation.

Of course, this is just my opinion and nothing more—the real change starts with you. Yes, you. Although we’re young, we still have a lifetime of reform ahead of us. As Gil Scott-Heron once said, “the revolution will not be televised.” So, if you want to see real change, you have to be apart of it.

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