America is gripped by grievance. Factions defined by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation compete for victimization status. Nowhere is this more evident than in college-admissions processes, already perceived as rigged in favor of the children of the privileged and stacked against others who have faced considerable adversity, but not fall into an approved victim category.
Against this backdrop, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other media recently reported that the College Board, which administers the SAT, has created a new “demographic handicap” for colleges to “level the socio-economic field” in admissions decisions. According to the reports, the College Board plans to assign students an individual “adversity score” alongside their SAT, based on 15 social and economic factors related to students’ neighborhoods, homes, and high schools.
Critics have panned the adversity score as a “bogus [effort] . . . to rank students on a one-to-100 pseudoscientific index of oppression,” a “backdoor to racial quotas,” and an approach that will “only invite a new quest for victimhood.” I understand this criticism. I run a network of public charter schools that educates almost entirely low-income Hispanic and black students in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Young people in these communities are pummeled constantly with the message that they are marginalized, helpless victims of systemic discrimination. Adults in their lives are often steeped in victimhood themselves, which can lead to a kind of learned helplessness that perpetuates a self-fulfilling cycle of failure. The last thing our kids need is yet another set of codified grievance categories to compete over in the Oppression Olympics.
With these concerns in mind, let me offer a defense—not of the adversity score, but of what College Board president David Coleman calls an Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD). The College Board is not, in fact, assigning an individual adversity “score”; nor will a student’s actual SAT score be affected. In 2017, well before the recent headlines and the “Varsity Blues” scandal, Coleman piloted an effort to help colleges “find unseen talent” by creating the ECD to supplement a student’s SAT score with additional aggregate, non-specific information about the student’s high school and home neighborhood. It is this pilot that provides the model for the new initiative. The additional information includes Census data related to income, housing, educational attainment, likelihood of crime victimization—and, most importantly and unusually—family structure.
“The data elements that underlie the measures of environmental disadvantage in the ECD draw on a research base that spans many disciplines (sociology, psychology, education, economics, etc.) that share the common goal of understanding how childhood environments impact educational trajectories and later life outcomes,” says Stefanie Sanford, the College Board’s chief of global policy & external relations. For example, in the 2014 Land of Opportunity study that investigated the intergenerational mobility of more than 40 million children and their parents, a team led by Harvard researcher Raj Chetty found that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.” Thus, the College Board’s inclusion of family structure in the ECD, specifically the percentage of single-parent households in a student’s neighborhood, and those with children in poverty, brings forward sociologically relevant data about an applicant’s environment.
Leadership at the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Assessment Governing Board, and the Data Quality Campaign, along with state commissioners of education, should also take note of the critical role that family structure plays in shaping educational outcomes. I have long advocated for collecting student-achievement data by family structure, as we currently do by race, ethnicity, and gender. Disaggregating student-achievement data in this manner will show that family structure—specifically, the presence of two parents in a home—is a reliable determinant of various factors and outcomes, including early-childhood brain development, school readiness, attendance, behavior, test scores, and graduation rates.
Taking family structure into account could lead to new interventions for improving outcomes. These could include, starting in middle and high school, ensuring that students know the series of life decisions—education, work, marriage, and children (in that order)—that most closely correlates with life success. As research around the so-called Success Sequence has shown, 97 percent of people who follow this series of decisions sequentially make it into the middle class.
The Environmental Context Dashboard, used properly, could provide colleges with reference data that encourage a second look for a student who has demonstrated resourcefulness in the face of real environmental challenges—but its colorblind criteria represent an important advance. Not all adversity is the same, nor can it be assumed by group identity. The ECD’s value, in other words, may lie not only in the elements it includes—such as neighborhood density of single-parent families—but also what it leaves out. By omitting the usual factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, the ECD may chip away at the idea that being black or female makes one inherently disadvantaged.
Of course, adults in these students’ lives should also teach them to reject the victim ideology, and remind them that they will face adversity in many forms—that life is unfair, one way or another, no matter who you are. We can help such students develop the personal agency to make life decisions that give them the greatest likelihood of success.