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The College Board Hopes to Profit from “Adversity”

The standardized test company says quantifying student hardship gives SAT scores context—but who is defining the frame?

Neilson Barnard/Getty

Is the College Board #woke now? Formed over a century ago with the mission of expanding college access, the Board is today best known as the developer of standardized tests—the most famous of which is the SAT. But now, implicated in recent college admissions scandals as a corruptible way to gain entrée to selective schools, the SAT’s integrity and utility are under fire. The College Board’s latest initiative, the “adversity score,” is ostensibly an effort to level the playing field for disadvantaged students by providing context for SAT scores.

The adversity score is a number on a 100-point scale that amalgamates 31 factors about a student’s school, like rigor of coursework, neighborhood, poverty levels, and crime rates. The higher the number, the more adversity a student has faced. Fifty signals “average” adversity. It’s part of a product called the “Environmental Context Dashboard” that gives admissions officers context for understanding SAT scores. Many colleges already do the work of evaluating these factors independently, but the College Board is hoping to standardize the process.

Attention to the intellectual tradition behind the exam, however, reveals its true political and cultural implications, and those of the adversity score. “Remember,” said College Board CEO David Coleman in an interview last month with WBUR, “adversity is all too common. Resourcefulness is rare. The real point of the dashboard is to show those students who defy their situations and perform at a very high level.” Coleman’s description of the philosophy underpinning the adversity score echoes Thomas Jefferson. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson planned for a system of education in which “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.” Coleman’s iteration is more tactful, but the idea is similar: Students who demonstrate their intellectual ability, in this case by performing well on a flawed test, deserve to transcend their rough circumstances through education.

The SAT’s widespread use was fueled in part by Harvard president James Conant’s mid-20th-century hope that it would protect democracy from the Communist threat by facilitating a distinctly American, classless society. As Nicholas Lemann explains in The Big Test, Conant was inspired by Jefferson’s vision. A clean, objective measure of scholastic aptitude would untether gifted students from the context assigned to them by the accidents of their births. The exam would give students equal footing in the national contest over access to a scarce resource—high-quality college education. Conant hoped that by setting a dispassionate standard for academic potential and opening access to educational opportunity across classes and regions, an intellectual governing elite would arise.

But in this broader moment of reckoning with the complexity of national myths, the narrative of the SAT and its parent company, the College Board, deserves scrutiny. It is not that we need to “admit that learning is often painful,” as Coleman asserts in a recent Atlantic piece that reads more like an advertisement than an “Ideas” column. Nor is it that “a real love of ideas” only comes through “practice”—an interesting plea from the head of a company with a big stake in testing and test prep.

The devaluation of nuanced, socially conscious thinking about power and its effects contradicts the spirit of the very passage from Notes on the State of Virginia Coleman echoed. Jefferson’s express purpose in developing plans for education was “rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.” He gave history pride of place in the curriculum because, “History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.” In other words, Jefferson wanted students to recognize what is now a cliché—history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

Jefferson’s system of education was grounded in the liberal arts because he saw sensitivity to power structures as a civic responsibility. In today’s context, taking a humanistic view of American education reveals the cultural implications of the adversity score: Quantifying students’ pain and their relationships to their environments is flip, condescending, and potentially dangerous. As an attempt on the part of the College Board to recover from recent admissions scandals, it is dystopian and reckless in its overreach.

The framers left education out of the federal Constitution so that states could control its development, not so that a business could fill the void at the national level. Why should the College Board arbitrate and standardize the relative impact of social and environmental factors on students’ potential? The impulse to validate affirmative action is good, but the Board is not a government agency. Allowing it to further consolidate power and money is disturbing because the access to education the company controls will likely shape the future of American life. Yes, leaving education up to states and local school boards carries its own dangers, but outsourcing authority to a private concern—something too many educators and institutions at all levels are already doing—is hardly the remedy.

The educational and political frameworks in this country are codependent. Educators leave impressions on students about the nature of authority and empowerment, their places in communities, and the value of subjective experience. By positioning itself as a powerful intermediary between the realms of education and government, the College Board has too much control over how the one translates into the other. The company’s reach is vast. The SAT isn’t the only flawed educational instrument it produces. For example, rapidly expanding Advanced Placement tests and their attendant courses, both of dubious quality (a recent course guide for the AP English exam included numerous typos and syntactical errors), are more likely evidence of the company’s commitment to increased revenue, rather than “equity.”

A lot of high school students understand their places in American society in relation to the feedback they receive from the College Board. Widening access to education is, of course, crucial to the survival of a truer democracy than the one Jefferson may have envisioned. Numbers matter. Problems of scale in the face of limited resources are real. We should be talking about the company’s products in terms of power, authority, and tradeoffs. The shortcuts it advocates are options, not mandates. It’s possible that these choices reflect Americans’ attitudes toward education. Maybe not. Either way, the College Board’s marketing obscures the terms of the debate.

American education is a messy affair and the façade of control is appealing. Coleman’s acknowledgment that scores need context is not just a bid for relevance in a world that has rightly moved past “colorblindness” and toward cultural sensitivity. The “adversity score” is an admission that the SAT cannot fulfill the hope of a cleanly meritocratic society, governed by deep thinkers. The College Board’s new purpose, apparently, is to reduce students’ whole identities—not just their intellects—to numbers. Given the fallibility of the original metric, this is a dangerous proposition. Absent the civic responsibility and appreciation for liberal arts thinking inherent to Jefferson’s plan, the educational framework Coleman promotes carries the danger of teaching all students that self-worth is contingent on soulless, quantified, “objective” measures of inferiority and superiority. Democracy was not designed to be a big business. Education shouldn’t be one either.