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Critics Say Real Aim Of College Board Adversity Score Is Race-Based Discrimination

Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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The College Board is evading questions about the secrecy of the “adversity score” it will now give to every student who takes the SAT, making it easier for critics to frame the move as an attempt to preempt a potential Supreme Court ruling on race-based admissions.

Students will not be able to see the score, and the College Board has provided very little information about how it is determined. The score aims to give a leg up to students from certain environments deemed disadvantageous by the College Board, but the board won’t say how the various factors that go into the score are weighted, or even what all of the factors are.

News of the new scoring system broke on Thursday, prompting a slew of questions and concerns from education experts, officials and advocacy groups. Is it fair or even useful to rank students in this way? What’s with admissions officials openly saying it will come in handy if the Supreme Court bans race-based admissions? And most especially: Why is the score shrouded in secrecy?

The National Association of Scholars, a conservative non-profit, called on Congress to ban the use of the score. “The ‘adversity score’ is a new way for colleges to disguise their quota systems, and an expedient way to allow them to avoid legal liability for race and sex discrimination,” David Randall, NAS director of research, told The Daily Caller. “All Americans should speak up to demand that our colleges and universities only use real standardized test scores to judge admission.”

SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store June 27, 2002 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Former Missouri State University president Michael Nietzel wrote in a blog post, “The adversity score apparently does not include race, but it’s obvious that the score is an attempt to be a proxy for race, thereby dodging claims that it is racially discriminatory.” (RELATED: Harvard Docked Asian American Applicants For Personality, Lawsuit Alleges)

The Wall Street Journal reported there are 15 factors that go into the score, based on public records as well as “proprietary” information, designed to provide socioeconomic context to a student’s SAT score. The College Board provided some additional information about the score in response to an inquiry from The Daily Caller, but declined to list the 15 factors or explain how they are weighted. Regarding why it is kept secret from students, a spokesman told the Caller that once the pilot is completed, the College Board will “explore and evaluate” how the score can be shared beyond colleges, but declined to clarify what that means.

A graphic provided to the Caller shows how the score appears to colleges who use the tool. Students are given different scores based on their neighborhood, the high school they attend, family income, education level and other factors, as well as an overall score designated the “Overall Disadvantage Level.” Colleges are also told how the student’s score compares to the adversity scores of other students at their institution, and information about the context in which they took AP exams.

They refer to this page as an “environmental context dashboard,” and provided some additional information about how it works in a three-page “data dictionary” document. The “Housing Stability” score, for example, is based on vacancy rates of the student’s neighborhood, rental vs. home ownership rates and mobility and housing turnover. “State Norming,” which does not show up on the provided graphic, is a measure that puts a student’s adversity score in the context of average scores for his or her home state. “Median family income” is based on the data from the U.S. Census, and “Crime” is based on the likelihood of a person in that neighborhood being the victim of a crime, according to FBI crime statistics.

The document lists nine categories, shown below, but does not state how each one is weighted.

The data used to measure “Family Stability” highlights how the score could potentially be used as a de facto race-based admissions tool. That score incorporates the number of single-parent families in a given neighborhood. The most recent U.S. Census found black children are twice as likely as white children to live in a single-parent home, and more than four times as likely as Asian children to live in a single-parent home. The survey found 55% of black children and 31% of Hispanic children are in this position, compared to 21% of white children and 13% of Asian children.

Depending on how the family stability factor is weighted with other factors, the score could skew the overall adversity score toward black applicants, without ever explicitly weighing race. That could amount to a violation of new rules on race-based admissions, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit against Harvard working its way through the federal court system.

Several college admissions officers told the Wall Street Journal the tool could serve as a workaround if the Supreme Court bans admissions based on race. A former College Board employee was more direct.

“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” Anthony Carnevale, former employee of the College Board and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Wall Street Journal.

Critics agreed with Carnevale, pointing to a demand from colleges for a potential Supreme Court workaround as the real reason for the tool. Glenn Loury, an economics professor at Brown University, suggested the tool’s potential use as a workaround is also the reason the College Board is keeping the details of the score a secret. (RELATED: Here’s Why Colleges Are Quickly Dropping SAT And ACT Essay Requirements)

He said college admissions committees likely want the College Board to “adjust” student’s SAT scores with the tool, in order to make it easier for them achieve diversity objectives. The score applies to every applicant, but in a way that is designed to make it more likely for minority students to be accepted. He calls this “color-blind affirmative action.”

“What goes into the index of ‘adversity’ is crucial,” Loury told the Caller. “And the choice of the precise factors to be used and the weights given to those factors can have large consequences in terms of the impact on various racial groups. Perhaps that is why the College Board is not being forthcoming about the details.”

The Harvard lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of Asian-American students who did not get into the university. They are arguing Harvard illegally discriminated against them based on their race, by holding them to a higher standard in order to hit diversity quotas. (RELATED: Harvard Students Testify In Trial: ‘Race-Blind Admissions Is An Act Of Erasure’)

A Chinese-American advocacy group told the Caller they are worried the adversity score will serve a similar function, in this case applying a standard that is not only out of most student’s ability to control, but also cannot be appealed, since students won’t know their score. Of course there’s also the possibility some parents might try to game what they do know of the system.

Supporters attend the “Rally for the American Dream – Equal Education Rights for All,” ahead of the start of the trial in a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., October 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

“Most kids can’t choose where to live,” Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, told the Caller. “What happens if a poor kid’s parent is a gardener at a rich person’s estate and they live there? Should the kid be punished by a bad adversity score?” On the flip side, he noted, a wealthy kid who moves into a poor neighborhood because their parents are part of a wave of gentrification might be rewarded with a higher adversity score.

“Should the poor kid whose family sacrifices to live in a better neighborhood for a better education for the kids get punished?” he added.

The College Board is making the argument that the score is simply intended to provide context to a student’s score that will make it more clear to admissions officers which students are performing capably relative to their environment. Some students might be overlooked, the board says, because the admissions officers are missing this important context.

“For some admissions offices, the tool was most useful for borderline acceptances and students who went to committee,” one college who participated in a beta test of the score said, according to the College Board. “For others, it was valuable for students from nonfeeder high schools and areas they are less familiar with.”

The broad rollout of the tool follows the beta test, with 50 colleges. The College Board highlighted some of its findings in a statement provided to the Daily Caller. Students with higher adversity scores were more likely to be admitted, they said, and students whose performance according to the score showed a wide margin of overachievement benefited from the score.

“The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” the College Board said. “It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked.”

The question remains though, as to why the score should be kept hidden from students.

“You can’t quantify a person’s experiences by punching a bunch of numbers into an excel sheet,” Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the Caller. “We have no idea if this is a good way to measure people’s backgrounds. I would argue it probably isn’t, but students have no way to challenge the score or even to know if they have a good or bad score.”

Rather than reframing disparate test scores, she argued, we should focus on ensuring every kid has access to a quality education at the K-12 level. “The adversity score is a bad way to fix a larger problem,” she said.

“College is meant to prepare you for life, and in life we don’t have things like adversity scales,” she added. “When you’re entering a job, you are not given special points over other applicants — nor should you. And so if we’re telling our young people that working hard and playing by the rules is how you get ahead in life in America, I think that this sends the wrong message.”

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