Adversity Scores

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

One question that we've been receiving lately from students and parents is about the SAT's recently announced "Adversity Score," which will be added to score reports sent out to colleges (but not to students themselves). This will be a score between 1 and 100, with higher scores representing a greater level of adversity and lower scores representing a greater level of privilege (a score of 50 will represent the average student in the U.S.). Factors that will be taken into account include socioeconomic status, neighborhood crime rate, the availability of quality schools, parents' marital status, and whether English is the primary language in the student's home. Notably, though, race is not factored into this score whatsoever.

In a sense, this is the reason for the College Board developing its controversial "Adversity Score" - there is a significant chance that the Supreme Court will declare Affirmative Action race-based college admissions to be unconstitutional this year. A case brought by a cohort of Asian-American students against Harvard claims that the school's admissions practices discriminate against people of Asian descent in violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it seems likely that the court will rule in their favor, especially as the group has compelling evidence demonstrating such discrimination on the part of Harvard's admissions officers.

The idea behind the Adversity Score is to allow schools to diversify their incoming classes by focusing on underprivileged students and students without the proper environment for educational attainment without incorporating race as an explicit factor. It will allow schools to put SAT scores into context so that a student can be compared against those with similar adversity scores - the idea being that a 1400 for one student (say, in New York City) is not the same as a 1400 for another (say, in Blackwater, Arizona). One student comes from the richest city on the planet, while the other from the poorest in the country, so of course you cannot compare them on a one-to-one basis simply due to the gap in opportunity. But, in a sense, schools have been doing this already, and students have ALWAYS been competing not against those across the country but rather against other students at their own schools. Now, however, the College Board is seeking to formalize this process through a quantifiable score.

So what does this mean for students? If adopted widely by schools, this means that there will be relatively fewer spots for privileged students and more spots for underprivileged students, which is an admirable goal. However, it is debatable whether this should be done by a private testing company like the College Board rather than the Department of Education, and the company needs to take further steps to make these scores transparent to students and the public so all understand the metrics by which they are calculated.

For our own students, though, we would recommend not worrying too much about these scores. Students will still need to take the SAT or ACT in order to get into most schools, and the ACT is planning to introduce its own version of the Adversity Score in the next year or so. So there's no escaping it, really. Yet, for the majority of our students not much is going to change. All students are competing against their peers, and this has been the reality in college admissions for decades already. All students can do is work hard, achieve the best grades and test scores they can, and develop their intellectual passions so that they will succeed no matter what school they end up attending!

UPDATE (9/16/19): The SAT has officially canceled its new Adversity Score amidst the widespread backlash. In place of this single score, the SAT will instead provide multiple "Landscape" scores that provide more context about students' environmental backgrounds. However, these scores are already widely available to colleges and universities and will not be combined together into one number.

Don't focus too much on adversity. Focus on yourself!