The Final Corruption of the SAT’s

The College Board, ever alert to cultural signals, has decided the SATs can be improved by adopting what might be called McNeil methods.

In the 1930s, Charles K. McNeil, a math teacher at Riverdale Country School in New York, indulged a not very respectable hobby of gambling on the side. Growing bored with picking winners in lop-sided contests, he came up with an alternative: betting on what he anticipated would be the difference between the winning and the losing scores. Thus, was born the idea of the “point spread.” For example, thanks to McNeil, you can place a bet that the Phillies will lose to the Cubs by no more than two runs. If the Cubs win 5 to 3, you win your bet; 5 to 2, you lose.

Bookies love point-spread wagering because it opens up endless new possibilities. Gamblers can be enticed to bet on teams that have no chance of winning, granted a point spread.

The Adversity Score

The College Board’s version of the point spread is a new device called the “Adversity Score.” The College Board will still report students’ actual scores, but it will now offer a second score on a 100-point scale that testifies to how much hardship the student has had to face at home, in the neighborhood, and at school. Anything over a 50 on the Adversity Scores scale indicates that the student has faced the cold, cruel world and somehow done OK. Below 50 on that scale is the territory of social and financial privilege.

In that light—so goes the logic of this new system—a student who has mediocre SAT scores but high Adversity points might be considered “resourceful,” while a student who has fairly high SAT scores, but low Adversity points might be considered ordinary. “Resourcefulness” according to the chief executive of the College Board, David Coleman, is the very heart of what it takes to ready for college. “Merit is all about resourcefulness,” he told the New York Times when it broke the story about Adversity Scores.

Coleman himself is the very model of resourcefulness, or resourcefulness melded to privilege. The son of the president of Bennington College, Yale-educated, and a Rhodes Scholar, he found the resources as a young man to buy out a division of McGraw-Hill and build his own education consulting network. Backed by Gates Foundation money, he founded another non-profit that created what became the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts. That program was jammed down the throats of Americans as part of Obama’s education reforms. Massive public resistance followed, but by then Coleman had moved on to become the head of the College Board. In that position, he resourcefully “adjusted” the SATs to lower standards and released new, radically progressive versions of Advanced Placement examinations in U.S. History and European History.

Mugging US and European History

These are the accomplishments of a clever man whose disdain for traditional academic standards is deeply held and sincere. It is hard to think of a single individual since John Dewey, who has done more damage to American education. Coleman always proceeds by avowing that he stands on the side of fairness and inclusion. The measures he promotes are intended to help the poor and marginalized, but they seldom work out that way. The Common Core, for example, spoiled math education for a generation, marginalized English literature and history. The effect of the reforms, similar to many other progressive nostrums, is to lock social disadvantages into place.

That’s what the Adversity Score will do as well. To see how requires some background.

The Adversity Score is part of the College Board’s “Environmental Context Dashboard,” which tells colleges how to “read” SAT scores concerning selected aspects of the students’ social background. Colleges and universities are overwhelmingly interested in one part of that social background: the student’s race or ethnicity.

But college officials are increasingly in peril over their determination to discriminate in admissions in favor of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. An Asian-American group is suing Harvard University for discrimination and is taking similar actions against the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas. Many observers anticipate that one of these cases will eventually land before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could severely limit the license of both public and private colleges to use race as a factor in admissions. The directors of admissions, the College Board, and the entirety of the diversicrat establishment in higher education is aware of this peril. The search is on for ways to maintain racial preferences that can disguise what the New York Times likes to call “race-conscious admissions.”

The Adversity Score is an attempt to blaze this trail. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, let the cat out of the bag: “The purpose is to get race without using race.” The Adversity Score manages this by ignoring the vast majority of ways in which an individual might encounter “adversity” while growing up to focus on the forms of adversity most likely to occur in black communities. Using “adversity” as a proxy for race doesn’t mean that it maps perfectly onto race. An imperfect match works much better for both public relations and for legal arguments. If “Adversity” promotes the college prospects of a certain number of impoverished Asians and Whites, so much the better.

Some critics immediately tore the gauze aside. Heather Mac Donald, titled her article in City Journal “Grievance Proxies,” and skewered the Adversity Score as part of the “anti-meritocratic ideology of ‘diversity.’” Thomas Chatterton Williams writing in The New York Times inveighed that the College Board “is attempting to dictate which forms [of adversity] matter and which do not.” He called that “the dehumanizing message,” that reduces young people “interchangeable sociological points of data” that sand away the real complexity of human life.

That’s the essential point. Our social engineers are at work again, figuring new ways to manipulate us into a pattern they have devised for their own purposes. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is that the College Board will never divulge to students or their parents what Adversity Score the student has been assigned. That’s for the players only: the college admissions staff and College Board insiders. They know, or at least they think they know, where the interests of social justice lie. The rest of us are just the hapless pawns of their betting strategies


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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10 thoughts on “The Final Corruption of the SAT’s

  1. Scholastic Aptitude Test. Adversity is neither Scholastic nor Aptitude. By the way, if you can get some Industrial-Education-Complex lackey to flag you as ‘special’ they already grant extra TIME to take the tests.
    Sadly, I’m unsure this is the *final* corruption. When it comes to measuring feels instead of skills and knowledge, the Education Community knows no bounds.

    1. Extra time on tests of course was abused in the Varsity Blues cases. (People paid a pittance for the cheating scores; the payments on the order of $100,000 or more were for the athletic endorsements, that actually get the kid admitted once the score is in the ballpark.)

      I know someone who proctors these extra time tests — presumably for honest test takers. She says that since VB nothing at all has changed that she can see, and she’s pretty perceptive.

      Right after VB broke, I was waiting to hear how College Board and ACT were going to fix their own weaknesses that had contributed to the scandal. Coleman even wrote a column on Inside Higher Education bemoaning how money and social status buys admission, but nothing about his own fault (via CB) in the scandal and how he would fix it.

      CB is just spinning the scandal and not changing a thing.

  2. I was wondering how SAT scores got so high. I should have realized standards were lowered to be more “inclusive”.

  3. Thanks for keeping us posted on one more nail in the coffin of academic standards. Perhaps the Trump administration and the DOE can take some steps to counteract this travesty. What’s the best way to bring this issue to the attention of Secretary DeVos and President Trump?

  4. The interesting thing here is the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA and/or the Buckley Amendment. FERPA applies to any academic institution that receives Federal funding, i.e. everybody except Hillsdale & Grove City Colleges.

    First, FERPA permits student* access to the student’s admission file — you have to be enrolled as a student to have this right (i.e. it doesn’t apply to those denied admission) but any student who wants to can see his/her/its “adversity score”, can even get a copy of it for payment of photocopying costs. There’s nothing preventing a group of students from getting their own scores and using their personal knowledge of their own lives to figure out the differences in their scores — essentially reverse-engineering the matrix used to determine the scores.

    Second, while largely toothless, FERPA has some privacy protections. Information can be shared but it must be for a legitimate educational purpose, and the student* has the right to be told whom it was shared with. As these are minors (much of the data comes from the PSAT taken in the 11th Grade) state educational laws also apply and often are far more restrictive than FERPA, often requiring explicit signed permission from a parent.

    Third, FERPA allows a student* to challenge “inaccurate or misleading information” in any academic record, to request a formal FERPA hearing if it can’t be resolved informally, and to insert a statement reflecting the student’s views if the institution doesn’t change the record to the student’s satisfaction, with this statement becoming part of the record (which must be forwarded with the rest.

    Now imagine that you are the principal of a medium-sized suburban high school and you have several hundred parents (many with lawyers in tow), each demanding a formal FERPA hearing so as to give their child the highest adversity score possible. In addition to everything else you have to get done…

    My guess is that this will crash & burn on that alone. As it is, an increasing number of selective colleges are no longer requiring the SAT or ACT, and there are now more students taking the ACT than the SAT.

    *Student if over age 18, Parent or Legal Guardian if not.

    1. (1) Very important point here: the PSAT questionnaire, filled out early in junior year before the student is even into the college admission process, is much more extensive than anything else to be filled out later. It even asks religious affiliation. And CB doesn’t at least tell parents about it. Be aware of that questionnaire, get the questions in advance and work with your child to make sure the answers are correct.

      (2) Perhaps the legal scenario mentioned at the end is why CB also doesn’t give adversity scores to the high school. So that if hauled into court, the school can say they don’t know anything about this.

  5. How damaging this will be for the institutions embracing it. “Privileged” students will forever look at minority students as having arrived not on merit but on a diversity boost. And pity the minority student who was, or would have been, accepted on merit. That person’s achievements will be forever tainted.
    Now there’s a lose-lose situation.

    1. Isn’t it that way already? It’s an inevitable result of affirmative action, and no amount of hectoring people not to do it will succeed in stopping thoughts that are simply applications of Baye’s Theorem or the logical thought process behind it.

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