The process of admissions into advanced educational institutions is undergoing more scrutiny than it has endured in years. This year, several universities were scandalized when parents were implicated in an illegal scheme to manipulate the admissions process through bribes and falsified test scores. Last year, the Justice Department joined a suit against Harvard University on the side of plaintiffs who alleged the school violated affirmative action’s legal boundaries by discriminating against white and Asian-American applicants with high standardized test scores. Asian-Americans are seen by progressives as overrepresented in New York City’s most prestigious high schools—a problem that led New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others to recommend scrapping standardized tests altogether.
In the minds of its critics, the problem with the admissions process isn’t just its vulnerability to manipulation by unscrupulous actors but the process itself. It is not designed to account and correct for the perceived advantages enjoyed by some students more than others based on the stations into which they were born. Indeed, that kind of blindness is the point of any standardized test. To rectify this, the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT (and materials that consist of preparation for the SAT), will introduce a new metric to gauge individual student merit. It’s called it the “Adversity Index.”
This new index measures the conditions over which students have little to no control to gauge their relative levels of “hardship” or “privilege.” Among them: their neighborhood crime, vacancy, and poverty rates, housing values, family median income, parental education level and marital status, whether they spoke English as a first language, the rates at which graduates from their high school matriculate into four-year colleges, the number of advanced placement classes offered, and the opportunity to take advantage of a free lunch. Only colleges, not students, are privy to the results of these potentially socially stigmatizing privilege tests. For now, at least.
The Adversity Index does not directly take demographic characteristics into account, but it’s not an exercise in colorblindness. As Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce Director Anthony Carnevale told the Wall Street Journal: “The purpose is to get to race without using race.” There are a lot of assumptions embedded in the notion that an individual’s racial background can be divined from an examination of their family structure, neighborhood environment, and the quality of their high school. At least a few of them require some reliance on stereotypical, even prejudicial, suppositions. Clearly the College Board believes its objectives are so noble it will escape the “problematic” noose.
That might not last for long. The effort to transform an individual life’s unique and nonquantifiable hardships into a metric is likely to be as manipulable as any other test score. If it serves as a weight against standardized test scores, the incentives for students to lay claim to hardship will be potent. Even social justice activists who believe in the value of acknowledging “privileges” inherited at birth and correcting for them understand they are creating what author Andrea Smith called “cultural capital” around the concept of oppression. “Consequently,” she confessed, “people aspired to be oppressed.” Savvy parents with loose morals will learn how to game the system or contract with those who do.
When New York City public officials recommended scrapping standardized testing entirely to address the frustrating racial discrepancies in the city’s advanced schools, Colombia University Professor John McWhorter protested. Instead of eliminating the test entirely, why not redouble efforts to help minority students perform? “I sense a background suspicion among some that black kids are just not up to acing such tests on some ineradicable level,” he wrote. Though they’re doing so with the best of intentions, reform-minded educators who embrace the privilege score are seeking to address persistent inequalities not just by raising the deserving up but by identifying those who have had too much and deserve a reckoning.
This kind of negative social leveling is fraught enough, but to do so in a way that robs people of their individuality is hostile toward merit and effort. Indeed, social justice advocates who see fortune as something for which any egalitarian society must correct have come to see the very idea of merit as an obstacle to inclusivity.
For the College Board, the Adversity Index might simply be an effort to prop up its waning relevance. Colleges, including top-tier schools, are increasingly loosening or dropping standardized test requirements for admission altogether. Getting into the woke business may just be best-practices for a “not-for-profit” organization that become the leader in the thriving test-taking and test-prep industry. In the process, though, the College Board is sowing the seeds of its own irrelevance. “This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of accumulated advantage,” said education reformer and activist Bob Schaeffer. He’s got a point, and one that the College Board doesn’t seem inclined to argue against anymore.