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Editorial: Handling adversity

David Coleman sure does like controversy.

Coleman, you see, is the current president and chief executive of the College Board, the company that administers the SAT test. Prior to leading the College Board, Coleman was one of the chief architects of Common Core, the much-maligned kindergarten through grade 12 curriculum standards.

Last week, it was reported that the College Board had been piloting an “adversity score” for a select group of colleges. The new Environmental Context Dashboard collects metrics around 15 non-academic factors and reports that score to the school, alongside the academic results. The goal of the new dashboard, according to Coleman, is to measure a student’s “resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less.”

For critics of social mobility programs such as this one, the adversity score is a stunningly easy target. It is literally and directly intended to penalize “privilege.” While the College Board is protecting precisely how it calculates the adversity score as proprietary, race is not one of the 15 factors involved. Critics will tell you that this is all about race, that it is an evolved form of affirmative action. As Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Wall Street Journal, “the purpose is to get to race without using race.”

Proponents of the program will tell you that this is all about leveling the playing field, that standardized tests measure where you have been, and admissions should measure where you are going. At a time when the uber wealthy are pleading guilty to spending massive sums of money to cheat their children into better colleges, proponents will say an adversity score is a much needed tool to insure simple fairness.

One can almost see the lines being drawn in the sand between the two sides of this argument. It’s possible that both sides are missing the bigger point.

The adversity score is an attempt to fix a broken system by further breaking the system. It is the equivalent of flattening the driver side tire on your car because you had a blowout on the passenger side. Now the car is on a level playing field, right?

The system of college admissions is broken. Standardized testing is broken. It is broken for the privileged and underprivileged, the rich and the poor, the black and the white. That is why hundreds of colleges no longer require an SAT or ACT for admissions.

One telling sign that even the College Board lacks confidence in its adversity score is that it will not share said score with the student – it only shares it with the school. That certainly seems odd, and certainly seems like the exact opposite of a solution to the college admissions problem. We need more transparency, not less. Are we to trust that our children’s future should be based on a secret algorithm that generates a secret score?

Michael Nietzel, the retired president of Missouri State University, made another excellent point in a recent column for Forbes. “There’s not a straight line from socioeconomic background to SAT performance; assigning an adversity number suggests an influence that may not be operating for individual students, and it probably overlooks influences that are,” he wrote.

All of this brings us back to Mr. Coleman. He has made quite a career from trying to fix great, big problems in education. Unfortunately, the adversity score follows a pattern established in Common Core – the solution ends up being worse than the problem itself. We agree that the admissions system is broken. We simply think that, this time, the solution needs to be uncommonly good.

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