The College Board is an organization whose entire reason for existence is to quantify the unquantifiable. For its first 120 years, the board largely limited this alchemy to the translation of scholastic aptitude into a single number. But last week, the College Board announced that it will introduce a new “adversity score” aimed at measuring the hardships that high school students have faced in their still-young lives.
The adversity score — which will be shared with colleges and universities along with a student’s SAT performance — is based on 31 data points that, according to research, are correlated with academic achievement. They include factors associated with an applicant’s neighborhood (such as the percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma) and those tied to a student’s high school (such as the number of Advanced Placement courses offered). College admissions officers are already placing great weight on the measure. At Yale College, which has had access to adversity scores for several years as part of a pilot program, the admissions dean says the new metric “is literally affecting every application we look at.”
Critics have complained that the adversity score will undermine meritocracy. But there is nothing “meritocratic” about ignoring the hurdles that a student has jumped on the road to college. The College Board’s decision to acknowledge adversity in the admissions process could have been an important step toward a more comprehensive assessment of aptitude and achievement.
Alas, the adversity score reflects at best a half-hearted effort to measure hardship. The board has conspicuously omitted a central factor shaping the lives of college applicants: race. As a result, a metric designed to guide admissions officers in their consideration of adversity threatens to mislead instead.
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