Trying to make up for deep-seated inequality in American society without being unfair to any one individual is no easy task. No one knows this better than people in the college admissions business — in particular the College Board, which recently backed away from a planned tweak in its all-important Scholastic Aptitude Test after the change was roundly blasted by critics.
Not that the SAT is unused to criticism; the test long has been accused of a cultural bias that results in higher scores for white and Asian students and lower scores for non-Asian minorities.
The accusation is that questions, intentionally or not, require test-takers to be familiar with white middle-class cultural references. Somewhat in response, colleges and other institutions, including the SAT, have tried to get at the problem by considering not race but overall social and economic privilege.
Thus the College Board announced its "Environmental Context Dashboard" just last May, the idea being that, along with the traditional up-to-800 scores on the verbal and math sections of the test, each student would be given a score reflecting the advantages or disadvantages of his or her circumstances.
The number, between 1 and 100, would be based on data about the student’s school and neighborhood. Critics hated the idea for lots of reasons: A person’s life circumstances can’t be represented by a single number, some said; others said using an "Adversity Score" undermines the idea of succeeding on merit.
Others said the very idea — SAT’s effort to correct for advantage and disadvantage — proves the test never has been valid.
That seems a bit unfair; of course students who have gone to better-equipped schools and can afford expensive test-prep courses are likely to do better. It’s difficult to imagine any academic test for which that wouldn’t be true.
Last week, the College Board announced a tweak to the tweak: It still will rate each student’s school and neighborhood, but won’t distill that information into a single number and present it as the student’s personal score. It also will offer more explanation about data behind the ratings. That’s important; the previous plan, to present the score with no explanation, surely would have spread distrust.
The effort to account for adversity still will be imperfect. The data won’t, for example, tell the tale of a student from a poor neighborhood and weak high school who nonetheless is lucky enough to have caring, attentive parents who instilled a love for learning and good study habits. It won’t be very meaningful for neighborhoods where incomes are mixed.
Still, it’s hard to fault the SAT for trying. The test is expected to sort out who has the best potential for success in college, and privilege or the lack of it can skew the picture significantly.
For purveyors of college entrance exams as well as the admissions professionals who decide who gets in and who doesn’t, the challenge remains figuring out what yardsticks to use to assess complex individuals.
How does the 4.5 GPA student from the high-rated high school with extensive AP course offerings compare with one who goes to a school with no advanced course offerings and has worked throughout high school to help support her family?
Absolute fairness in testing and admissions likely is impossible, but the effort to get closer to it should continue.
— Columbus Dispatch