In the annals of “What were they thinking?” the College Board’s recent attempt to boil students’ life histories down to something called an “adversity score” has wrecked on the shoals of “You must be kidding.” The College Board, which ought to know better in the first place, had decided it could collect fifteen or so data points to encapsulate students’ “social and economic background,” according to Douglas Belkin at the Wall Street Journal. A resulting score would enable college admission officers to objectively make decisions, presumably without referring to race or ethnicity. College admission practitioners have wisely told the Board to think again.
The Board’s adversity score took into account three major fields, neighborhood, family, and high school environments, with each one having four subsets such as crime rate, median income, and free lunch rate, respectively. These measures all seem to be value-neutral. Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admission at Yale, which used the scores as a beta tester last year said in the Journal article, “This [adversity score] is literally affecting every application we look at…It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”
This number, which students themselves don’t see but college admission officers do (Would students be embarrassed to see it? Would they be pleased? Why wouldn’t they get that information?), was supposed to help create more diverse classes by taking the guesswork out of assessing applicants’ backgrounds as admission officers searched for students who may not look like ideal candidates but who may have “overcome adversity,” as the phrase has it. As the Journal article notes, “An adversity score of 50 is average. Anything above it designates hardship, below it privilege.” The theory is that students with high adversity scores and solid if not exceptional grades and scores may in fact be good candidates for the institution. In overcoming, they’ve demonstrated “grit” and “determination,” which can carry them through even a tough curriculum.
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Conversely, if we follow the logic to its illogical end, students with low adversity scores must be sailing through life in crystal clear waters with the wind always at their backs and therefore don’t need a hand up in admission. We know, however, that’s not necessarily the case. Looking at suicide clusters at high-stakes, high-pressure high schools, for example, or at over-scheduled kids who take six AP classes, do three team sports, act in the school play, do homework until two in the morning and get up at 5:30 to attend early band practice, and you realize “adversity” takes many forms.
The flaw comes in mistaking the score as value-neutral, thinking it could encapsulate the life and context of any individual applicant. Looking at the diagram in the Journal article linking the elements to the score, it’s clear that “adversity” is primarily about the adversities affecting many non-majority communities, not adversity in its most abstract (and least useful) sense. For example, there’s no category for having always-fighting-near-divorced parents or being homeless-due-to-LGBT status, or attending-terrible-charter school, or even disability. The end came before the beginning, overloading the score with presumptions only a massively over-influential and increasingly clueless organization like the College Board, residing comfortably in the sylvan environs of Princeton, New Jersey could think up (despite being a short train ride from Newark and Trenton, whose students would presumably receive very high adversity scores.)
Not known for its sensitivity to irony, the Board also forgot that a high adversity score could eventually be seen as a plus, abstracting the adverse realities of an individual’s life into a positive, at least as far as college admission is concerned. (With all due respect to those with genuine disabilities, it would be like the tactic many advantaged majority parents use getting their perfectly able children labeled learning-disabled so they can get extra time on tests.) And so a student’s genuine, day-to-day struggles become part of the game instead of something that needs to be addressed—a concession that these conditions are intractable, inherent elements of a student’s life.
The number also had the potential, one supposes, for giving colleges some cover when it was used in the course of accepting “underprepared,” and usually non-white students: “It’s data, for goodness’ sake! We didn’t do it arbitrarily! Look at the numbers!” Numbers can be comforting that way. They feel scientific and absolute; they tell us what we need to know without messy opinions or prejudices getting in the way. Colleges would be able to point to their admitted class’s adversity score results instead of listing the number of minority students, which could either be embarrassingly low or high enough to rile wealthy white majoritarians who think they’ve been cheated out of something. Seems so much cleaner and more defensible to do it this way.
Backlash from college admission professionals on both sides of the desk (except Yale, I suppose) has been severe enough for the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman, to admit, “The idea of a single score was wrong.” One would think the College Board, sitting on surging masses of data would have been able to come to this conclusion before unleashing it on the world, but clearly one would be wrong. As colleges and universities have been edging away from using SAT scores, trying to add another highly abstract score should have seemed like heading into a nor’easter instead of clear sailing for the College Board.
But that’s the problem with data in this context. Students aren’t merely data points. They’re real live people still coming into themselves. When they apply to college they’re putting those selves on the line and expecting those on the other side to evaluate them with some detail and sensitivity. Good admission officers are good in part because they’re sensitive to students and their contexts without needing a phony and ill-conceived score to lean on. They can see in the application itself many of the elements the adversity score was supposed to distill for them. Good high school counselors can make the case for students as well; a lack of a counselor can be a potent message in itself.
Like many other processes, college admission has become increasingly technified. Getting better at crunching numbers can be helpful but can also make data in that milieu occasionally look like the be-all and end-all of the transition, but it isn’t. We should never forget that real young people apply to colleges with real admission officers evaluating them; reducing them to anything like an “adversity score” is an exercise in perversity.
Original Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/willarddix/2019/08/31/college-boards-adversity-score-succumbs-toadversity/#655e8a1027b9