Making meaning out of your adversity

A long time ago, over ten years ago, I had assigned a persuasive essay as a practice for the up-coming high stakes state exam. I don't remember the exact prompt, but it was from a previous year's test so it was probably pretty lame. "The Importance of Being True to Yourself" or something vague like that. And, as most anybody would predict, the vague and lame prompt generated a lot of vague and lame responses.

But one stood out. One of my students (these were 11th graders) had this gut-wrenching story about her cousin. Her cousin had been mixed up in a rough crowd and dropped out of high school. But then her cousin had come to live with my student's family to go back to high school and get her life back in order. One day her old boyfriend dropped by to see her, and he convinced her to go out with him for the evening. They went out, and got drunk, and the cousin's boyfriend crashed his car, killing them both. The story was sad, and the writing was good, and I have to admit I was almost in tears. 

But there was something a little off. I couldn't figure out what, but something just wasn't convincing. So I asked my student, "I hope you're not offended by this question, but is this really a true story?" She thought it was silly that I would even ask. "No!" she laughed. "I just find a way to kill off my cousin in every one of these essays we have to write. It's more dramatic, and I always get the highest score." Later that day I learned that another student always made up some story involving twins separated at birth in his essays. Both students knew that the prompts on the state exam begged for "voice," and they devised ways to make sure they had it when they were given a topic to write about on the spot.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when I read about the College Board's pilot Environmental Context Dashboard. Overcoming adversity is something a lot of college admissions officers are interested in. They'd like to know if applicants have had to deal with more-than-usual hardships. Partly because they know that students who have already dealt with tough situations are more likely to be ready for the rigors of college, and partly because many colleges see providing opportunities to those from under-represented communities as part of their mission.

The problem is that determining adversity is difficult, especially when you're looking at hundreds or thousands of applications. The main way they have to figure out how much adversity you've overcome is through the essay. But some students who have been through a whole lot of difficulty may not want to talk about it, and--as my creative writers proved--some students are willing and able to talk about adversity they haven't actually faced. 

Some of the more obvious data an admissions person might want to use might be difficult to actually get their hands on. It's normal for admissions departments to make decisions before students have submitted paperwork for financial aid, and many schools are prohibited from considering race. So for most, there's no way to know much about a student's background except to ask and hope for a good and honest answer. 

The College Board, which oversees AP exams as well as the PSAT and SAT, wants to help. They're testing this "Dashboard" to help colleges make a better guess at your environment growing up. They already have a bunch of data on your high school, so they know how many students at your school take AP exams and what the average SAT scores are. From that, they make some determinations about how advantaged or disadvantaged you are by your school.

They can also figure out the crime rate, real estate values, and median household income of your neighborhood. They also use your neighborhood data to know how likely you are to come from a single-parent household or live in poverty. Obviously, living in a neighborhood with more single-parent homes doesn't guarantee you live in one, but they know the odds. And from all this data, they can give colleges an estimate of how difficult your high school environment has been.

It's obviously not perfect, but I think it's intentions are in the right place.

In the test schools, the College Board showed two universities (they won't say which ones) the adversity estimates after the schools had already made admissions decisions. According to the story in Inside Higher Ed, "In the experiment at a moderately selective public institution, where admissions decisions are made by formula, admissions officers said the index wouldn't have changed anything." Which basically says that the schools that don't really consider adversity won't really get much out of the adversity data. But at a school with a more holistic admissions approach, "using the index might have changed 20 percent of decisions." Again, they didn't say how it would have changed their decisions. The College Board plans to do at least one more year of pilot testing before they start selling the stats to colleges. 

You can read Scott Jaschik's article from Inside Higher Ed here, and here is the College Board's official, public write-up of the project.

What does this mean for you? If you're a senior or junior, nothing. But for younger students, it means that colleges will likely have a snapshot of your environment from the get-go. If you have high SAT or AP scores in a school where that's uncommon, it might mean that more and better colleges will start recruiting you more aggressively. 

But if your background is different than the norm for your school or neighborhood, then it might leave you with more explaining to do, not less. Just as an example, I once had two students with the same address on one of the most expensive streets in Dallas. One was quite wealthy, and the other lower-middle-class. That's because one student's mother was the housekeeper for the other's family, and they lived in a garage apartment behind the other student's historic mansion. That sort of thing wouldn't show up easily in the new dashboard and would need to be explained the old-fashioned way, in an essay or interview.

But you probably shouldn't kill off any imaginary cousins, no matter how dramatic it sounds.

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