It's ok to relax about the new "adversity score"

There’s been a lot of talk this week about the College Board’s new Environmental Context Dashboard and “Adversity Score.” If you haven’t read about it yet, here are the basics: the College Board, which among other things administers the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams, has a new tool for colleges. Along with test scores, they’ll also tell colleges about your “environmental context.” They use 31 data points about your high school—things like the average SAT score, the percentage of students who take AP exams, and the percent who qualify for free or reduced lunch—and your neighborhood—things like median family income and percentage of residents living in poverty—to get a rough estimate of your learning background.

None of the data is personal or individual. It doesn’t say whether you yourself live in poverty or a single-parent household. But it uses the data about your school and your neighborhood to give you an “adversity score” in a range of 1-100, 50 being average. The idea is that the adversity score will give colleges a quick idea of your background and what’s “normal” in your environment. If you want to read more about the program, here are good summaries from the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed.

There’s been a lot of discussion about it this week, and a lot of people don’t like the new program. Some want it to do more, some want it to do less. Some don’t want it to exist at all. And here’s my take on the program:

We can all just relax about the “adversity score.” I don’t think this will be a big deal, nor do I think it should be. Let’s look at some key ideas.

It probably has a lot to do with Affirmative Action and diversity. Whether or not you believe they should be, a lot of universities are very interested in a diverse campus. As the federal law stands right now, colleges can use race as a factor in admissions, but they have to use a non-race-based method to try to achieve diversity first, before they can consider race. With the current lawsuits against Harvard, UNC, and UT-Austin, many believe that the Supreme Court is going to make it even harder, if not illegal, to use race as a factor. Some states already have laws against universities using race as a factor for admission. The Environmental Context Dashboard does not include race. It will tell you the percent of families in an area who are poor, but not give racial proportions. The College Board seems to be offering colleges a non-race-based way to work towards diversity by considering Adversity Scores. That may come in very handy.

It doesn’t say a whole lot, but everyone knows that. The score only includes some kinds of adversity, and it doesn’t speak to your particular adversity. It gives a broad background to your school and neighborhood, but says nothing about you and how you fit into that school and neighborhood. It doesn’t explain how many people live in your household, how often you have been seriously ill, how much you have to take care of other people in the family. It claims to speak to your adversity, but only makes a guess. I can see how that might be a problem. But please remember that the college admissions professionals know that just as well as you and I do. There’s no reason for them to put too much emphasis on an adversity score. It’s just another data point in a file with a lot of data points.

There’s nothing new about it. The Environmental Context Dashboard doesn’t really offer any new information. If an admissions counselor knows your zip code, they can look up median household income for that zip code. Most colleges know what classes most high schools offer, because high schools submit a school profile at the same time they submit your transcript. Most, if not every bit, of the information in the dashboard is already available somewhere else. Schools can look it up, and you submit a lot of it yourself. What the dashboard and the Adversity Score do is provide colleges with a single source for all that data, in a standardized form, that’s easy to compare with others.

That makes sense. Think about it from your own perspective. You can look up all kinds of information about colleges by looking at the brochures they send you and browsing their websites. But each of those is different, so you probably also like going to a book or website that has a lot of information for a lot of schools, all in a standard format that’s easy to compare—like Big Future or the Fiske Guide. What the College Board is doing is providing the same kind of uniform, easy-to-find data for colleges. Colleges have your high school profile, your financial aid application, your transcript, and your essays and other application material. No Adversity Score is going to replace those. But it may help admissions offices put them into a greater context a little faster. And for any college using holistic admissions, context is really important.

Remember that schools are moving away from the SAT and other standardized tests, anyway. A cynical, but common, view is that the College Board is feeling scared that fewer universities require SAT scores, and so they’re coming up with this new measure to make themselves more relevant and stay in business (non-profit business, for the record). I guess I don’t really see a problem with an organization changing what they offer to keep themselves relevant. That seems fine to me. The College Board is so much more than the SAT—or the Adversity Score. They have accumulated so much data over the decades, and if colleges now want different things from that data, then I’m kind of glad that the College Board is able to provide it. After a few years, schools may find the adversity score useless, and it will quietly disappear. Maybe schools will really like it (it seems to have got good enough reviews from the 50 schools who used it this year as a pilot program.) Maybe, like the SAT, it will keep changing and shifting to try to stay useful.

No, it’s not a sign of the Affirmative Action apocalypse. Some of the fiercest voices against affirmative action have also come out against using adversity scores. Even though adversity scores are not based on race and have no race data in them, opponents see this as a non-race to actually consider race or as another attack on meritocracy. Again, it’s okay to relax. This one number on a report with a bunch of numbers is not going to turn universities into Minority Wonderlands where smart white kids just can’t get accepted.

In one piece I’ve seen cited several times, Heather Mac Donald claims

At present, thanks to racial preferences, many black high school students know that they don’t need to put in as much scholarly effort as non-“students of color” to be admitted to highly competitive colleges. The adversity score will only reinforce that knowledge. That is not a reality conducive to life achievement.

I’m a white man, and I don’t want to speak for African Americans or pretend to know what it’s like to be African American. But I can say with utmost confidence that I’ve never talked to a person of color, or read anything by a person of color, who said, basically, “I don’t need to take those AP classes white people do, because I know the colleges have got me covered. Our American system sure makes things easy for non-white people!” That’s just not a reality that I’ve ever come across.

We’re probably going to forget about this soon. It’s not going to be a big deal. And we can all relax about that.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m going to my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

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