Adversity Scores Set Students Up to Fail

Last Thursday, the College Board announced that the SAT will be including a new “adversity score” in student test reports to 150 colleges and universities this year. In theory, the score helps admissions officials more fairly evaluate student performance in context of their individual situations. But in practice, it sets unprepared students up to fail.

According to the College Board, the adversity score examines 31 pieces of information including the quality of local schools, neighborhood crime rates, poverty level, and median income. Scorers then consolidates these factors in a score between 1 and 100. A score of 50 is average, a higher score indicates the student faced greater adversity. The goal, according to the College Board, is to identify students whose resourcefulness will help them succeed in college.

The rub is that while these scores give admissions officers hope that certain low-performing students with high adversity scores can succeed in college, most students—and especially the low-income—are not prepared for college, and those who attend are paying dearly.

The College Board writes that the SAT is a critical part of the college admission process because it is based on research that identifies the skills and knowledge students need for college success. Several studies support these claims. They find that SAT scores predict college credit enrollment, retention rates, and GPA.

But by SAT standards, only 47 percent of America’s high school class of 2018 is prepared for college. And low-income students are especially unprepared. According to data from the College Board, average SAT scores are well below SAT college-readiness benchmarks for students in households making less than $100,000 per year.

The adversity score system sugar-coats these performance metrics. Rather than providing objective standards by which admissions officers can evaluate who will succeed in college and who will not, SAT adversity scores offer admissions officers a justification to overlook objectively low SAT performance and correspondingly low likelihood of succeeding in higher education.

Even the score’s contributors admit that it was not designed to identify who is truly prepared for college, only as a reason to admit diverse, and especially racially diverse, students. In the words of Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce who worked on the College Board’s precursor to the adversity score program:

“The purpose [of the adversity score] is to get to race without using race.”

But admitting low-performing students—diverse or otherwise—comes with a cost.

Even today, before most schools have begun to use adversity scoring to justify admission for low-scoring candidates, 26 percent of college students drop out after their first year and 40 percent fail to graduate in six years. For first-generation low-income students, 89 percent dropout in six years.

In large part this is because students are not prepared for college coursework. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 60 percent of students must take remedial “catch-up” courses because they are not prepared for college classes. And of those students, only 35 percent graduate within six years.

Nor are those six years free. On average, college dropouts owe $13,929.65 in student loans, according to a survey conducted by LendEdu, a financial education company. And 46.5 percent of dropouts are in default, which means lost wages, court cases, and withheld tax refunds, benefit payments, and any federal student aid.

Using an adversity score to make students with low SAT scores more attractive to admissions officers means encouraging the admission of students who are, according to the College Board itself, less likely to succeed and more likely to undertake costs they will struggle to pay for years to come.

To be sure, the SAT is not a perfect indicator of college readiness. Some colleges and universities have stopped requiring SAT scores, and some studies suggest that high school GPA may be better indicator than the SAT of college performance. But debating the value of the SAT misses the point. The admissions tool doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the tool we use reduces the immense college dropout rate by setting more rigorous standards for college admission, and thereby ensuring that only students who are equipped to succeed take on the opportunity, and cost, that comes with a college education.

Instead of focusing on increasing diversity in education, we should be focusing on preparing our diverse students to achieve success themselves. Instead of propping students up for failure, we should focus on equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to meet objectively rigorous standards. Then they will not only enter college, but also graduate from it.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman