• Jonathan


A couple months back, I wrote a piece about a new metric provided by The College Board to help admissions officers better understand potential hardships students applying to their schools might face.

That metric, dubbed the “Adversity Index” by the media (although referred to as the “Environmental Context Dashboard” by College Board) offered to supplement SAT scores with another number that tried to quantify the potential adversity faced by the student who had achieved an SAT score, with that second number informed by statistics such as crime rates in the student’s neighborhood and the number of students in the school he or she attends that receive free or reduced-priced lunch (a stand-in for poverty rate).

The Adversity Index did not play well in the public square, with many condemning it as a means to water down individual achievement through a metric that reduces a student to a single value calculated by zip code and the school they attend. Some commentators also claimed the Adversity Score would allow schools to indirectly implement race-based admissions goals forbidden by law.

My own take was less about what was wrong with the Adversity Score (given that I disagree with a number of harsher criticisms), but what happens if this new measure takes on a life of its own and gains “cash value” in the marketplace. In other words, I was looking not at what the new initiative did wrong, but how to balance all consequences – good and bad – of a measurement generated not by a student being evaluated, but by a group of experts quantifying that student’s potential (but not necessarily actual) hardship.

While I have no idea why the Board recently decided to replace individual scores with access to data that would allow schools to review neighborhood-based information originally used to create individual Adversity values (through a program redubbed “Landscape”), I’d like to think that they reached this decision through thoughtful deliberation, rather than a response to attacks.

The goal for the program, after all, was a lofty one: to come up with a way for schools to understand the difficulties a student applicant might have faced in their lives based on environmental factors. Generating a score for each individual, especially by an organization responsible for measuring individual students’ college readiness, gave the impression that each student could be boiled down to a single number over which they had no control. But by abstracting their data away from the individual, they provided schools access to useful non-individualized data that provides more detail than “rule-of-thumb” measures like what state a student comes from, or whether they attended a big inner-city vs. smaller suburban school.

In our harsh political climate, where shaming and pressure are our primary means of advocating for change, engaging in dialog about complex issues that might lead to deliberative solutions has gone out of fashion. Yet the most important changes in society, from the elimination of slavery to women’s and civil rights, have come about only after long periods of deliberation provided intellectual channels to think in new ways.

Yes, marches and protests were part of these movements – as were tactics that involved shouting vs. discussing matters. But by the time people took to the streets, the pathway to nobler outcomes was already established through decades of thoughtful deliberation, which meant more aggressive tactics were only needed to push people into virtuous pathways that had already been paved.