SAT tests will soon include an adversity score.
SAT tests will soon include an adversity score. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Here is an SAT question to see if we are qualified to attend college. Which of the following three are the most related: a.) chops b.) liver c.) round d.) fore-quarter e.) rump f.) sirloin? Give it some thought before reading on.

At first I picked three according to how easy they were to prepare dinner—chops, liver or sirloin. Then I looked again and decided on “c, d, and e.” I was close, but wrong. Correct answer was c, d and f. Clearly this question is biased for carnivores and against vegetarians.

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A second question: Runner is to marathon as: envoy is to embassy; martyr is to massacre; oarsman is to regatta; referee is to tournament; horse is to stable. Growing up in Baltimore, I’d answer horse is to stable. Wrong again. Correct answer is oarsman is to regatta. Here is another bias, this time for New England’s elite and against area high school students.

What will the SAT's 'adversity score' mean for Baltimore students?

The College Board recently announced details for a plan that aims to contextualize a student's socioeconomic status.

The first question appeared on the inaugural SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in 1926, when higher education began using a general test for prospective students. It was designed as a tool to assess prospective students and their potential for success in certain colleges or universities. Officials kept modifying the questions. The second question appeared in a 1970 version. In light of the uneven and controversial history of the SAT, many colleges are now adding a new measuring stick — an adversity score.

What is an adversity score? It attempts to measure the differences between college applicants who have thrived in privileged backgrounds compared to applicants who have struggled in “adverse” environments. Using statistics such as neighborhood crime, family structure and troubled schools the applicant has attended, the new score is supposed to assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of the applicant’s personal life along with the likelihood of doing well in college.

On a scale from 0 (very privileged) to 100 (most difficult), with 50 being the norm, conventional SAT scores will be adjusted to include these new parameters. A dean from Duke University supports the change with the usual mantra of diversity. While his school accepts about 5 percent of its applicants, he applauded this move as an attempt to “level the playing field.” Presumably, the basketball coach’s $9 million salary also conveys Duke’s on-going commitment to a level playing field.

SAT to take into account adversities students face

The SAT will score students on challenges they face in their life, but does that go far enough?

Consider two students and their stories. One tells me she cannot complete an essay that involves taking a long meditative walk. Since she was 9 years old, she has had rheumatoid arthritis. When her medications are losing their efficacy, she has trouble walking for more than 10 minutes, sleeping and hanging out with friends because of her aching joints.

Another student asks for some lenience with possible absences, as his grandmother has been ill for some time. With no father or other siblings around since eighth grade, and his mother working full-time, there will be times when the grandmother’s condition worsens and he has to quickly attend to her. He apologizes in advance for any lateness of forthcoming essays. During my teens I’d be delivering newspapers or playing cards and lots of pick-up basketball, whereas these two students (both did well in my courses) have faced adversity immeasurably more demanding.

Indeed, to assign a number that accurately measures their adversity seems a perversity. It is condescending, if not demeaning, to put a 38+ or 17- on another human being’s childhood personal circumstances, hopes and despair, dreams and disappointments. Higher education, which is supposed to free us from unfairly profiling other human beings, has introduced a new profile with adversity scoring. Though couched in numbers to give it the pretense of scientific accuracy, this metric introduces another unexpected bias. It is a bias against the innumerable and immeasurable adversities experienced by today’s young individuals who do not appear on the SAT adversity map.

Alexander E. Hooke (ahooke@stevenson.edu) is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His latest book is “Alphonso Lingis and Existential Genealogy” (Zero Books).

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