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The SATs Are Trying to Level the Playing Field — Sort Of

The College Board is rolling out “adversity scores,” which are designed to address inequality in the college admissions system — but is it too little too late?

A sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School. The current version of the SAT college entrance exam is having its final run, when thousands of students nationwide will sit, squirm or stress through the nearly four-hour reading, writing and math test. A new revamped version debuts in MarchSAT Exam Makeover, Bethesda, USA

Alex Brandon/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When news of the college admissions scandal, a.k.a. Operation Varsity Blues, broke way back in March, many were left wondering what, exactly, had gone wrong with the college admissions system. Now, the College Board, the governing body for the SATs, has taken steps to address critiques that the SATs are racially and economically biased by introducing an “adversity score,” which plans to address racial and socioeconomic discrepancies in test scores by taking individual students’ backgrounds into account.

While it’s not clear whether the tool was developed in response to the college admissions scandal, according to David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, it was developed specifically for the purposes of addressing the critique that the SATs skews in favor of white, middle- and upper-middle-class applicants. “We’ve got to admit the truth, that wealth inequality has progressed to such a degree that it isn’t fair to look at test scores alone,” Coleman told the Associated Press. “You must look at them in context of the adversity students face.”

A student’s “adversity score” will be on a scale from 1 to 100, and it will be calculated based on more than a dozen factors, such as the crime rate in an applicant’s neighborhood and the quality of their high school. Although students won’t be able to see their own adversity scores, college admissions officials will have access to them and will consider them in the admissions process.

While adversity scores are intended as a step in the right direction for standardized testing proponents, who have long fended off accusations of racial and economic bias, it’s worth noting that such biases are arguably inherent to the very foundation of the SATs. The exam was created by Carl Bingham, a psychologist and early leader of the eugenics movement who used the results of military standardized testing to argue that whites were inherently more intelligent than people of color. (Bingham later recanted his views.)

Its origins aside, SAT critics have long argued that the test is biased against lower-income applicants or applicants of color, who may not have access to the same test prep resources (such as tutors and classes) or even the same basic information that higher-income students have. A 2011 study, for instance, found that white students scored higher on the SAT verbal section than black students of equal academic standing, because the questions tested knowledge of vocabulary words that the white students were more likely to have. Another study of experimental SAT test questions (i.e., questions that may or may not be used the following year) found that even when black students were shown to outperform their white counterparts on certain questions, those questions were scrapped by the authors of the test in favor of those answered correctly by white male students.

In response to the criticism leveled against the SATs, many colleges and universities trying to diversify their student bodies have removed standardized testing requirements, making the SATs or ACTs optional. But the standardized testing system faced another blow last March, when the FBI arrested 50 parents, admissions officials, and college athletics coaches for participating in a college admissions cheating scheme. Many wealthy parents, including actor Felicity Huffman, were accused of exploiting extra time accommodations and paying the mastermind of the scam, William “Rick” Singer,” to bribe SAT proctors to alter their children’s exam scores or even take the test for them. (Huffman has pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud; prosecutors have recommended she serve four months in prison.)

In light of the negative media attention, as well as renewed discussion surrounding the inequities inherent in the college admissions process, it’s not particularly surprising that the College Board would publicly assert its commitment to fixing the SATs. But the new policy has already been greeted with criticism on Twitter, with many characterizing “adversity scores” as a clunky method of quantifying an individual’s life circumstances, as well as arguing that the College Board’s efforts are too little too late.  It’s also unlikely that the new tool will be a hit among critics of college affirmative action policies, who have long argued that admission should be based on merit alone. (Indeed, Harvard University is currently facing a lawsuit based on claims that the university discriminates against Asian-American students during the admissions process, despite Asian-American students tending to have higher SAT scores than applicants from other backgrounds).

The College Board has already rolled out a trial version of the tool, and it says it plans to introduce it more broadly to about 150 schools by 2020. But given how broken many already perceive the college admissions system to be, both before and after the FBI investigation into the admissions scheme, it’s more likely than not that its efforts will be perceived as trying to slap a Band-Aid on an already deep wound.

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