Last week the College Board announced a new “Adversity Index” that quantifies college applicants’ statistically assumed hardships into to a single ranked score. The Index was originally reported as an assemblage of 15 factors based on neighborhood, home, and high school environments. New reporting states as many as 31 factors may be involved.
All we know about the Index comes from the College Board, which trotted out consultants and early adopters to defend its psychometric phrenology in the wake of competitive pressures and cheating scandals. But even what we know has prompted a reaction that resembles the “New Coke” debacle of 1985, when the reformulation of “Classic Coke” met with widespread derision as perhaps the worst product launch in history.
The Index is to be used, if at all, by college admissions staff in assessing students’ SAT scores, another College Board product which its president, David Coleman, at long last admits is biased in favor of the wealthy. Despite such a damning if obvious declaration, the SAT itself remains unchanged.
By commission and omission, even the Index skews for wealth. Gentrifiers, for example, are favored if they are in a low-income neighborhood—the index treats this as a hardship using census tract data—but ignores their gaming the system through expensive SAT tutoring. Scandalous buying and selling of SAT scores will continue, too, though the College Board no doubt hopes news of the Index will distract us from that unsavory mess.
Among the Index’s many other problems are that, typical of Big Tech introductions, it’s being beta-tested on real people in a high-stakes situation lacking their permission and using their personal information without informed consent. The initial phase included 50 invited and volunteer colleges. Next fall the tool will expand to 150 selective colleges, with more the following year. Students are not the buyers here. They are paying yet unknowing subjects of the College Board's product development strategy to prop up the reputationally damaged SAT. Increasing numbers of SAT-free or -optional colleges mean that fewer students need to pay for the test and its associated products like preparation books, the main revenue sources for the College Board.
Transparency is another issue. Students and their families are not provided with their Index scores, so there is no basis or avenue to appeal. More important, the underlying data used to formulate the score is secret, so any incorrect information is hidden without any opportunity for correction. And even if the Index has (so far unproven) general statistical validity—with higher scores correlating with greater student adversity—its use for individual decision-making hardly follows.
The very uniformity of this systematic scoring, even discounting likely false positives and false negatives, will have a detrimental effect on tens of thousands of applicants. Where currently individual admissions offices use their own criteria to select and weigh diversity factors, creating a degree of pluralism in college decisions, the Index will encourage uniform grouping of admitted and rejected students based on the single score they’ll all share and discourage individualization that more rudimentary, “back of the envelope” evaluation allows. We have seen this movie before: Big data, marketed by the College Board as a salvation, will become a technocratic tyranny.
Further, like the test-based accountability movement in which David Coleman also played a key role as the moving force behind the Common Core standards, the Index’s single quantitative score is likely to crowd out other important information from admissions assessments. The absence of race and ethnicity has already been widely noted. This decision not only ignores a highly consequential characteristic recognized even by the Supreme Court as a valid diversity factor but also signifies the College Board’s acquiescence to color-blind public policies, a particularly retrograde notion that institutionalizes anti-affirmative action views.
There is so much we just don’t know about the Index or what unintended educational or social factors will emerge from its use, assuming it’s not just a publicity stunt. Even if colleges don’t use it, applicants behavior may change with that expectation. Shrouded in secrecy and announced with fevered PR pomp, what’s leaked or hidden in the rollout is defended by the College Board as proprietary information. Sound familiar?
In its marketing and its prospects, the Adversity Index is looking more and more like the College Board’s New Coke.