Two Teachers and Seven Problems with the SAT’s Adversity Score

by and

Thursday, May 23, 2019

In a recent announcement, the College Board has opted to apply adversity scores to students based on “median family income, crime reports, housing circumstances, college attendance rates, and parental education.” It will appear to college admissions officers as a “score” from 1 to 100. While many claim that this is a positive step, it has drawn an incredible amount of scrutiny from both the left and right, as many worry that it functionally sorts students by the amount of melanin in their skin.

As teachers, we want to see our students succeed in a world that treats them fairly; this adversity score accomplishes no part of that goal. The problems with it are endless. Here are seven:

Great students, poor homes

We have both taught in a myriad of socioeconomic environments, from classes of language learners to inner-city Milwaukee to rural Indiana. Many of our hardest working students have been illegal immigrants or students from a single parent household, while a privileged many have slacked through our classes. This score strengthens the fatalistic stereotype that a background full of adversity determines one’s future.

It’s anti-meritocratic

The utility of equity versus equality—the equality of outcome versus the equality of opportunity—is a debate raging in the American school systems. A critique of American education for its failure to achieve perfect equality of opportunity is valid. In the face of this shortcoming, though, the goal should be to perfect the system so that all can succeed with effort, not to implement a score put together by a committee that arbitrarily selects winners and losers.

It further impersonalizes the admissions process

No longer can colleges function upon the individual merits and achievements of their applicants with yet another score on a pointless list thrust upon them. At a time in our nation’s history in which the numerization of the populace is at an all-time high, we cannot reduce our students to yet another number—chiseling away their personality and individuality in favor of a series of checked boxes.

It risks stereotype threat

‘Stereotype threat’ is a typically liberal idea. It is a psychological phenomenon wherein, if one is reminded of stereotypes—be they positive or negative—before a test, it will affect their scores. The theory suggests that thinking about the negative stereotype takes up cognitive load and worsens emotional states, thereby causing lower scores. Like it or not, there is a preponderance of evidence behind it. As such, applying this adversity score could, ironically, worsen the situation for poor students.

It is *functionally* a race score

Certain cultural and economic norms are prevalent among different communities; that isn’t under question. Primarily black communities in inner cities and white communities in Appalachia have inherent struggles that often show in their educational performance. The central issue is that this scoring system does not address what students have struggled through to get to the SAT and relies on a predetermined series of factors; it defines what student should be rather than what they actually are. It is beyond inappropriate that one might look at a poor student from Baltimore and assume that his test score is a result of his environment solely, or that an affluent student from Washington must be extra-privileged. This discounts the numerous brilliant minds that put in the effort and made their own path despite their relative poverty or affluence.

It’s probably not a very good arbiter of actual adversity

Who determines adversity? The African-American community no doubt has suffered more collective adversity than perhaps any other demographic and yet what about Asian communities that were sent to internment camps in World War 2? Did their families not suffer at the hands of recent and horrific racism as well? Why should one minority be penalized while another gets lifted up?

Furthermore, how well can a bureaucracy really determine the difficulty an individual has faced? An affluent family in a gentrified neighborhood? A poor family who just scraped enough together to move to the suburbs? I’m not sure a committee on the college board can make these calls.

Same problem as affirmative action

What are we setting our students up for? Academics like Thomas Sowell and Allan Bloom have shown time and time again how initiatives like affirmative action can create feelings of superiority and inferiority; students may view their peers as lesser and only in attendance at the university because of alms while others had to work harder—regardless of whether that’s actually true. Imagine looking at a child and telling them that despite their hard work they’ll be penalized hundreds of points on a required test because they were born into a family that wasn’t poor enough or from the right neighborhood.


This adversity score is only the latest iteration in a trend that has mockingly been called the ‘oppression Olympics.’ Jokes can be made and memes retweeted but there’s an effect that runs deeper than just conservative quips. This supposed oppression Olympics is, at its core, a reordering of society; no longer does it emphasize hard work and individual achievement but the hardships someone faces. Adversity is real and our society is far from perfect but we worry about what will happen as we continue to tell our youth that they are incapable of success and owed a debt simply because of their past.

Anthony Kinnett is a curriculum developer in Indiana with a B.S. in Science Education and a M.A. in Curriculum Development and Education Technology. He is a former education policy and legislation advisor to Governor Walker of Wisconsin and has articles in Red Alert and the Foundation for Economic Education.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Anthony Kinnett

Maranatha Baptist University (B.S.); Ball State University (M.A. Ed.)

Anthony Kinnett is a curriculum developer in Indiana with a B.S. in Science Education and a M.A. in Curriculum Development and Education Technology. He is a former education policy and legislation advisor to Governor Walker of Wisconsin and has articles in Red Alert and the Foundation for Economic Education.

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