Overcoming Adversity

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.

12 thoughts on “Overcoming Adversity

  1. Guitardave

    Dammit Scott…your triggering my dyslexia again…i keep seeing ‘Absurdity Score’…

  2. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Your link for ““not convinced the College Board has anything besides its own business interests in mind.” doesn’t lead to the blog post where Top Tier says that, nor does the link in the Atlantic article that quotes them. The link leads to a bio for Michele Hernandez & Mimi Doe, the founders of Top Tier. I expect that the Atlantic used an incorrect link on purpose; I’m not sure that you did. The blog post is substantially more illuminating than the bio.

    Top Tier is part of the university cartel, as is the College Board, so their blog post, although it makes a good argument for their position, does not touch the third rail of the university system; the reality that it is a bloated cartel of self-interested actors who act in their own best interests and against the interests of their “clients.” Of course the College Board wants to sell more of its products. So does Top Tier. So does every university and every college. The common goal of all these cartel members is to entice more idiots (or even intelligent but inexperienced youths) into their morass of non-dischargeable loans and overpriced but mostly worthless credentials whose value only resides in the virtue-signals that they send to potential employers. None of these shills will point out that the foundation underlying this corrupt system is the student loan backed and collected by the US government, because if that foundation was removed (as it should be) the whole system would collapse and universities would be required to sell a useful product for a reasonable price. That would be substantially less profitable than the existing system of debt slavery for those who are too young and/or dumb to understand what they are signing up for.

    1. SHG Post author

      I quote, including their links. If I was editing other people’s posts, it would not have passed muster. But for my purposes, the inclusion of the link in the quote is valuable to show how they roll. Now get off my case, debt slave.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        I have to admit, I am prejudiced after spending 30 years paying more than $50K on my $10K loan (which they told me was interest-free), and still having more than $20K to pay. Yes, I was stupid in several different ways, but I’m still pissed that they took advantage of my stupidity, and I hope to dance on the grave of their corrupt system before I die.

    2. wilbur

      This cartel will continue until students and their parents are educated as to why a college education costs so much that they have to assume life-ruining levels of debt to pay for it. Until they sit up and demand an alternative to this cartel. And until colleges exist outside if the cartels, selling a reasonable education at a reasonable profit.

      When I’m king, things will be different.

  3. B. McLeod

    I think this is a bad idea, and to explain why, I will retell an anecdote I once read (and probably not get it quite right, but them’s the breaks).

    Some decades ago, a young man aspiring to become an Olympic fencer managed to arrange an appointment with a prominent fencing master. The old man asked him to demonstrate his technique, and sat, and watched, for the better part of two hours. Then, he stood and shook his head, saying only, “You lack the fire.”

    Some years later, the young man, by then a successful auto mechanic, ran into the master again, and thanked him for his honest appraisal. Because of it, he had abandoned fencing, and turned his attention to more mundane, but practical matters, leading to his flourishing career path. The fencing master smiled and told him, “I remember you. You had considerable heart and impressive technical competence, but as to “the fire,” I say that to everyone. Those who have the drive to pursue fencing go on anyway, while those who don’t will hang their hat on my words as the reason to take another direction.”

    It comes down to the person. Even if fortune should throw in their path a Dust Bowl, a Great Depression, or a dreadful, worldwide war, the person who will press on through adversity may yet realize lofty goals in life. I have seen it. We should not attempt to adjust for “adversity,” but we should let it do its work. We should tell every applicant for admission at every school that they “lack the fire,” and let the chips fall where they may.

    1. SHG Post author

      My answer to kids who ask me if they should become a lawyer is “no, it’s awful.” If they’re really dedicated to being a lawyer, they will do so regardless. If they listen to me, they were never meant to be one. Shorter story. But your fencing story was nice too.

      1. B. McLeod

        It’s the same thing. It’s Kingsfield giving Hart the dime. If we want young people to hit their potential, we need to challenge them and create in them the conviction that they have something to prove. It is only by the spirit, awakened through such challenges, that the impossible will be accomplished and impregnable barriers overrun.

  4. Hunting Guy

    Robert Heinlein.

    “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.“

  5. DaveL

    It seems like I’ve seen this movie before. After all, wasn’t one* of the key justifications for race-conscious admissions about the supposed tendency of standardized tests to underestimate the ability of minority students? But then, a decade or two later we were forced to confront persistently low competition rates among these same students who, according to the theory, should have been better equipped to succeed in college than their SAT scores would suggest.

    So how is this different? Why should this theory of hidden talent succeed where so many similar ones have consistently failed?

    *The other being the pedagogical value of diversity.

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