SAT’s New ‘Adversity Score’ Risks Introducing More Bias to Student Admissions Decisions

College Board has a plan to boost the disadvantaged

Is the SAT’s new adversity score fair? All parents, guardians, educators and others should know what’s going on right now in the world of college admissions — and weigh in on this issue.

For high school juniors and seniors, performing well on the SAT or ACT exam is crucial to being admitted to one’s school of choice. Colleges and universities use these exams to measure students from every part of the country and from every socioeconomic situation. The score is very important.

Colleges often set a minimum for an applicant’s SAT score; below that minimum, it’s impossible, in most cases, to be admitted. As a result, parents often spend large sums of money to have their children tutored so that they’re adequately prepared for the rigorous exam. Proper tutoring can help raise a student’s total score by 50 to 100 points or even more.

Those who can afford the focused instruction have an advantage over those who can’t, although with free sample tests readily available on the internet and elsewhere these days, that advantage may be lessening. Still, issues such as a family’s lower-than-average income, a poor high school experience, or significant safety or security concerns in a neighborhood can and do negatively impact a given student’s SAT score.

To “level” the playing field, the College Board, which oversees the exam, now plans to assign an “adversity score” to every student — with a score of 100 indicating the highest level of adversity.

David Colemen, the College Board’s CEO, recently wrote that the new addition “shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less.”

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Each year students apply to colleges of their choice based on a number of factors that they — the students — deem important. The quality of the education, the programs offered, the school’s location, its athletics offerings, and its social life are among the criteria. In nearly all cases, schools receive many more applications than they have available places.

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The admissions departments of the schools look for students who will most likely be successful, have a positive learning experience, and graduate from their institutions well prepared to enter the adult world. They also look for students who will be a good fit — and will therefore contribute to the student body’s overall success.

Academics are the first criteria. Since all colleges have their own level of educational rigor, they look closely at students’ academic records and accomplishments — at the grades received and the level of the classes taken. The problem is that one high school may have a very different grading policy than another. And since final grades are often given with subjective components, comparing grades from one school with those of another could lead to misinformation.

A standardized test was the answer. With the SAT or ACT, all students took exactly the same test — and though these tests are not perfect, they did serve as a standard.

Now, however, by slanting or skewing a score with an “adversity” measure, the standardization will be lost — and comparisons will be skewed.

When squinted at a certain way, this may seem the “right thing” to do. Students who battled adverse situations in their lives while also straining to do well perhaps could have done even better if they’d had the same opportunities or conditions as others, this argument goes. Don’t they deserve more?

The real problem with padding a score for compassionate reasons — among other problems (including what constitutes adversity, exactly, and for whom and why) — is that the recipient will always wonder whether his or her college acceptance was sincerely earned or not.

Instead, my suggestion for students is this: Write a compelling essay that lets admissions offices know exactly how determined you’ve been in your life, no matter your circumstances — and that you did not let adversity of any kind stop you from pursuing and achieving your goals. That’s worth a great deal.

In other words, reject another shot at victimhood.

Sure, the SAT and ACT are important. But many schools today are rightly more concerned with the content of a student’s character rather than a few extra points on an exam.

Michael Busler, Ph.D., is an economist and public policy analyst as well as a professor of finance at Stockton University in New Jersey, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in finance and economics. He has written op-ed columns in major newspapers for more than 40 years.

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