What’s the point of “adversity”? The Roman poet Horace saw it as an opportunity.
Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.
Others see it less as a hurdle to overcome and more as a wall that blocks talent from showing itself, from being seen. Everyone loves a success story, a tale of the person who faced adversity and overcame it, but those stories are loved because they’re so very rare and special. Most people facing adversity aren’t quite so special, and if they possess greater talent than their circumstances allow, they are invisible behind that wall.
This is unfortunate, both for them and for society. To leave talent untapped means we’re denied their skills and contributions. It’s not that they might be a secret Mozart, as there aren’t too many Mozarts out there, but they might well be an excellent electrical engineer. As for the unseen but talented student, the loss of opportunity will obviously lower his expectations.
So the College Boards have announced that it will introduce an “Adversity Score” to its numbers, and heads exploded. On the one side, it’s argued that this will be just one more way to game the system, because wealthy parents will move to tenements across the tracks and put their kids into the worst schools. On the other, the mechanics fail to account for “real” adversity, using reductivist categories that will never match students’ real world experience. And for those folks with three hands, it’s a sham way around affirmative action, a pretext to admit students based on race.
None of these arguments is ripe as yet, and none take into account what the College Board explains as the genesis of this curiously-named score.
This system has been in development for the past three to four years, according to Connie Betterton, a College Board vice president who led the team in creating the score. A number of college-admissions offices have been involved in the process, telling the College Board what information would be most helpful for them to have.
This adversity score isn’t something the College Board dreamed up on its own, but is responsive to the information sought by college admissions offices. One can question the veracity of this explanation, but then, if colleges don’t find the score useful, they don’t have to use it. The raw numbers will still be there.
The team developing the score found that colleges were most concerned about the talent they weren’t seeing, the applicants who might thrive on their campus but who have weaker transcripts due to disadvantage, the College Board CEO David Coleman told me.
And here’s where they get into trouble, and would likely do poorly on the logic portion of an entrance exam. Assuming that the College Board has done a minimally adequate job of coming up with indicia of disadvantage, even if it’s imperfect and will leave many who faced adversity behind that wall, is there anything to show that identifying adversity of applicants will correlate with students thriving on campus?
“Thrive” is an interesting word choice, as it’s optimistic and uplifting, making it more marketing tool than reality. Admitting students with talent hidden behind adversity is one step, but fails to inform colleges whether they can survive a rigorous education and graduate. Will they study hard enough? Do they know how? Will they sacrifice to make the most of the opportunity? And then there are their feelings, of inadequacy, of not fitting in, of oppression when their classmates talk about Spring Break in Daytona Beach when they have no place to go.
College Board CEO David Coleman says it will work and these students will succeed.
“What these years were spent on was examining if the data [on poverty and disadvantage] was looked at together in a really clear way with the SAT, could it help admissions officers find kids they wouldn’t have seen? And do those students go on to flourish?” Coleman said. “And the evidence is that they do succeed, that they are resourceful.”
Could it? So he says. Will these students succeed? Are they “resourceful”? Nothing in the SATs or its new cousin, the Adversity Score, explains how or why this would be so.
“It is giving us a look at how poverty and inequality directly affect students’ college destinations, as it relates to [test scores]” [ Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard professor and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students] said. “When students sit down [to take] the SAT, that doesn’t mean that everybody’s at the same starting line.”
Yeah, we get the problem. That doesn’t tell us anything about whether this is the solution. Some kids who suffer adversity might be brilliant. Some are not. Some might be desperate for the opportunity to achieve, if only they can get in the door. Others will squander opportunity, whether because they don’t care enough or they just don’t have the right stuff. Starting at a different line may be unfair, but it doesn’t mean you can compete in the race. Indeed, many can’t compete even if they start at the same line, or at a line ahead of others.
So what have the College Board and the colleges who have been engaged in the pilot program found out?
In the end, the College Board is in the business of selling things: the SAT, the SAT subject tests, and test-prep books. The college-preparation agency Top Tier Admissions says that it is “not convinced the College Board has anything besides its own business interests in mind.” David Coleman is aware of this skepticism, but he said that he’s heartened by the actual outcomes. He noted that Yale, one of the pilot-program participants, reported that it was able to admit more Pell Grant–eligible students than in past years.
As long as there is money to be made, while being able to claim virtue, it’s the perfect solution for colleges and the College Board industry that feeds them. Whether this will help invisible students with talent remains to be seen.
It would be no big deal to try it, to see whether this assumed and announced optimism results in actual correlation, but for the fact that seats at Yale are a scarce resource, and somebody with an Adversity Score of 51 won’t get one while another with a score of 49 will. When that student isn’t yours, it’s a price you may be willing to pay to test a theory that assumes a huge logical connection. Maybe it’s worth it if one out of one hundred disadvantaged students “thrive,” but those other 99 seats are lost, and the butts that formerly filled those seats will go back to their disadvantaged world.