Phillipian Commentary: SAT: Superficial Adversity Test

Ever since the ruling of the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke Supreme Court case of 1978, trying to achieve a level playing field in college admissions for students of different backgrounds has been a first-rate national issue. Following the recent Harvard University discrimination court case and the William Singer scandal, the college board has announced a new, controversial agenda involving the allocation of a so-called “Adversity Score” to test takers. We posit that the issue of fair admissions is far more fragile and involved than the college board’s attempt at equalizing it shows; the company is essentially taking a sledgehammer to the “glass” system of college admissions whose problems ought to be treated with heightened cognizance, extensive trial and error, and input from those being affected.

At the heart of the issue, the SAT adversity score—which assigns a number from 1-100 to students, with a score of one being assigned to the relatively privileged—fails to fairly take into account unique institutions like Andover. In our big blue family, according to the matriculation data, 48%[a] of students are on financial aid and a total of 22 million dollars are spent on financial assistance each year. Because the new adversity score takes into account the surface-level prestige, or lack thereof, of high schools that students are applying from, those on financial aid may be unfairly lumped in with the sons and daughters of the ultra-rich. Additionally, the town of Andover has a low crime rate, low poverty rate, and a relatively high average median income (83,910 dollars, according to DataUSA). It is not clear if these metrics will all coincide to decrease a boarding student’s adversity score, albeit justified or not.

The system also appears to be very vulnerable to tactical manipulation. In light of recent events, it is clear that desperate parents will go to great lengths to ensure the best future for their children. This includes, but is not limited to, measures such as parents intentionally moving to a neighborhood with a higher crime rate, filing for a fake divorce, or underreporting their household incomes. We are given—at this moment in time—only surface-level information about how the algorithm will work to quantify one’s supposed adversity. Sure, the college board uses reliable and exhaustive data collected from the Census Bureau and the F.B.I., but what if someone suffered the loss of a friend or family member, a hardship in a romantic relationship, or, god forbid, domestic abuse? What if the father is an alcoholic or a sibling suffers from autism? Are these not instances of adversity? Who exactly determines what qualifies as adverse circumstances? In our opinion, such opaque and closed-source artificial algorithms that attempt to quantify misfortune are irresponsible and unreliable ways to factor in such inherently multi-layered social issues.

So, what is the right solution? Some may suggest that standardized testing be abandoned altogether. The unfortunate reality, though, is that this option would lead to difficulty in distinguishing between Andover’s demanding 550-level classes and a given public school’s heavily inflated Honors class. Others argue that the College Board should alter test material to level the playing field; but the truth is, no matter how the company changes the test to gauge a student’s ability, people who have educated parents, money to hire tutors, and more access to exam resources will inevitably come out on top. If the adversity score were to combat this reality, then this would be an entirely different article altogether.

We have to acknowledge that this is an attempt to perhaps move away from race as the sole factor that governs affirmative action policy. However, there are better, more sustainable ways to approach this delicate issue. For example, colleges can allocate more space on a student’s application to discuss their relative adversity and the extent to which they believe they have utilized available options. The board could stop reusing old tests that have been leaked to the internet and write better tests that don’t penalize carelessness rather than intellect (the newest International test deducted students 40 points for 1 missed question in the grammar section). The Board can also start by making their own “The Official SAT Study Guide” free! We find it hypocritical that (aside from a few, free outdated practice tests) they are locking their most valuable study resources behind paywalls.

Besides partnering with Khan Academy, the college board—a de jure “non profit” organization that pays its C.E.O. 1.3 million dollars a year[b]—has blatantly disregarded student input to implement constructive changes. Instead, the company has turned to implementing measures such as the adversity score, which proves more harmful than beneficial. Ultimately, making the test even less “standardized” than it purports to be will be its downfall. By tacking on this extra metric, the College Board is essentially “meriting a failing grade” as “The Chicago Tribune” puts it. [c]It is undeniable that college board has monopolistic power over America’s youth; we must hold them accountable for such drastic changes to our educational system.