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The dangerous idea lurking behind the new SAT score

Updated 4:41 PM ET, Sat May 18, 2019

Editor's Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast "They Call Us Bruce." He co-wrote Jackie Chan's best-selling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan" and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers." The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT (originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) taken by many university applicants as a part of their admissions packages, just announced that it was introducing a new "adversity score" that measures how challenging the test-taker's environment was growing up -- incorporating metrics like the average poverty and crime levels of the applicant's home neighborhood and the quality of the high school they attend.

Yale University, which has been beta-testing the system, has said that it has nearly doubled the number of "low-income students" by using the score. "This (adversity score) is literally affecting every application we look at," said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions to the Wall Street Journal. "It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class."

As David Coleman, chief executive officer of the College Board, said in a statement, the goal of the score is to provide admissions officers with "critical context" on the "talent and potential waiting to be discovered in every community." Think of it as the equivalent of a degree of difficulty rating in diving or figure skating -- a secondary modifier intended to shape how admissions officers perceive the raw score earned by the applicant. 

And it's a well-intentioned, but truly terrible idea -- both on its own merits, and because of what it symbolizes about the status of our national conversation around leveling the educational playing field. 

Conceptually, this approach oversimplifies the "adversity" any student faces into a calculated score derived primarily from generalized environmental factors retrieved from Census and Department of Education databases. It doesn't so much provide context about students as flatten them into statistical samples. 

Because it reduces the depth of a student's struggles to a data point, this new score potentially removes a student's individuality. And college admissions offices, facing ever-greater volumes of applicants and a steady assault from the anti-affirmative-action right, could well be tempted to rely heavily on this adversity score instead of doing a fully holistic immersion on every candidate's personal experiences.

This metric translates students into a set of crunched numbers that make anyone attending the same school and living in the same neighborhood look similar; the only adverse factors incorporated by the College Board that are tethered to an applicant's unique individual circumstances are those related to family situation, such as coming from a single-parent household, whether or not English is a second language and parental educational background. It's worth noting that even this information doesn't show up on sample dashboards the Board has released; the scoring methodology behind it is unclear, and underlying information is presumably provided on a voluntary basis, and is thus gameable.

Also absent from the College Board's calculations of adversity are the ones that are at the seething center of the affirmative action wars: Race and ethnicity. 

In all the quotes from proponents of the new score, race and ethnicity are pointedly avoided, replaced with mentions of socioeconomic status, geography, military family status and generalized "hardship." In short, with this score, the anti-affirmative action forces have won a major battle to replace the goal of boosting diversity with that of reducing adversity. 

And that's a heartbreaking act of surrender, coming even before the release of the verdict in the landmark anti-affirmative action lawsuit being brought against Harvard University. In that case, the alternative admissions mechanisms the plaintiffs propose do the same thing -- eliminate race as a direct factor in admissions in favor of class, geography and other options that focus on adverse circumstances. 

Yet race, even in the absence of other forms of adversity, remains an unrelenting factor in how we experience life in America. It's almost like we've forgotten the damning analysis conducted last March by the New York Times, which noted, "Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children. White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households."

If you're black in America, wealthy or not, ample statistical evidence shows that you're more likely to face discrimination in housing, in hiring, in financial approvals, in interactions with police. But in the context where the opportunity to enact social change may well be greatest -- the venue in which leaders are shaped and future generations are raised up -- race is slowly being chipped away from discussions and determination.

Even with affirmative action, the representation rate of blacks and Hispanics at elite colleges relative to their proportion of the US college-aged population has continued to fall over the past 35 years. The percentage of black freshmen at top colleges has essentially stayed static, at 6%, since 1980. As affirmative action's impact has steadily diminished -- after the passage of California's Proposition 209, banning the use of race in admissions in 1996, and Supreme Court decisions like Gratz v Bollinger in 2003 and Parents v. Seattle and Meredith v. Jefferson in 2007 -- there are even fewer mechanisms to rectify a gap in representation whose implications are huge and continuing for society at large. 

Certainly the use of generalized "adversity" as a workaround might achieve a moderate boost in black and Hispanic representation -- albeit in a highly diluted fashion rife with the potential for unintended consequences. But why do we need to continue this elaborate set of backdoor workarounds to half-heartedly move towards a just reality? 

For liberals who've been cowed into submission, "adversity" is a polite way of addressing racial diversity without addressing racial diversity. And for proponents of a falsely "meritocratic" system in which wealthy white and Asian applicants can bribe or game their way into admission, the shift to talking about "adversity" is a means of sealing away these issues for good. 

We can't let this new language pollute discussion about old and persistent injustices, in a nation that can't even speak sincerely about redress for our original sin of slavery. Because doing so is to embrace permanent moral defeat.


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