The College Board didn’t intend to trigger America’s longstanding squeamishness around race, class and educational achievement. But that’s exactly what happened when it tried to introduce a measure of “adversity” that test-takers have faced in life.
The College Board is the nonprofit that administers the SAT exam. In May, it announced a new process to assign an “adversity score” along with students’ results. Race was not to be a factor.
The score, on a scale of one to 100, would take into account factors not of the students making, such as the median income of test-takers’ neighborhoods, crime and poverty rates, the relative affluence and educational achievement of parents in the area. The intent was to provide context about the neighborhood and school environment, factors that many universities already take into account as they decide who to admit and who is denied.
“Wrong answer!” cried parents. They wanted the College Board to measure children’s merit with no reminders of what we all know but don’t always like to admit.
Class background matters. Where and to whom we are born, for most, has lifelong consequences.
Then, on Aug. 27, the Board reversed itself.
Instead of deriving a secret score through 15 criteria, the Board will look at far fewer factors to create a “landscape” of the student’s school and neighborhood. And parents will have access to the data, offering needed transparency.
But the Board doesn’t owe any apologies. The goal was laudable, to provide more information for colleges and universities intent on creating diverse pools of students.
Colleges and universities are desperately trying to recruit more diverse student bodies, while results for standardized tests show vast disparities in measured achievement. White students score 177 points higher, on average, than black students, and 133 points higher than Latinos. Asians score 100 points higher than whites, a factor in on-going class action lawsuits about admissions policies.
Relatively poorer students are not less deserving of higher education because they have scored lower on standardized tests. They often have fewer opportunities to develop to their fullest potential, with less rigorous curriculums, less stable housing and lower education levels of their parents. The inequities can multiply when they’re generations deep.
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This summer also revealed the highly publicized admissions scandals of uber-wealthy parents. The scale of the deceit was astounding. Parents were unabashedly paying people to take entrance exams for their children, or to lie about non-existent athleticism to move their applications forward.
Most parents don’t go to such extremes. But they hedge their child’s success in other ways. For example, aspiring families with the ability to do so move into public school districts, primarily in suburban neighborhoods. With more expensive real estate comes higher quality schools. Middle-class strivers know this, yet they don’t want to discuss the relative advantage that they worked so hard to create.
It’s one of the ways class background works in America. It’s uncomfortable to admit that our supposedly classless, opportunity-for-all is a bit of a lie. But that’s exactly what needs to happen.
We all want to believe that everything our children achieve happens because they were the best, the brightest, the most talented and the hardest working. People reflexively shudder at the suggestion that other factors might have been involved.
That maybe, just maybe, some less affluent students might actually be more disciplined, show more aptitude in a subject area but score lower on standardized tests because the school they attended didn’t have rigorous college-prep courses available.
What if the student’s neighborhood was fraught with gun violence, making even getting to school a dicey proposition. Imagine trying to prep for a big test when staying alive is a real concern.
Or maybe their parents didn’t have college degrees and were skeptical, dissuasive even, of the idea that their child should pursue a higher degree. That’s common.
But how to account for these truths, without seeming to take away from the students who face fewer barriers. They’re the ones who often need more grit, not the disadvantaged students.
The degree of pushback the College Board received is a telling measurement. The Board tapped into a massive national reluctance to admit significant correlations between poverty and educational achievement.
Unfortunately, this unplanned social experiment also showed that finding solutions to entrenched class inequality is a long way off.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.