Education, recent, Social Science

Science vs. Purpose: The College Board’s New Adversity Index

Recently, the College Board announced it was piloting a new Environmental Context Dashboard (referred to in the media as an “Adversity Index”), one which tries to quantify social challenges faced by students applying to college. As described here, the index uses publicly available data regarding a student’s neighborhood and high school, such as median income, unemployment levels, and crime rates, to generate a value between 0 and 100, with higher numbers indicating higher levels of adversity indexed students might face.

Debate over the move has polarized around issues of fairness (why not provide college admissions officers data they can use to contextualize grades and test scores?) and independence (who is the College Board to lump me and everyone else in my neighborhood and school into a cohort summarized by a single numerical value?). Like arguments over the role of standardized testing, discussion of the Adversity Index is confused by a conflation of the scientific nature of assessment and the social purposes evaluations are supposed to serve.

Professional test developers involved with creating tests that measure student academic achievement, as well as college entrance exams (like the SAT and ACT) and exams for certification and licensure, use a variety of design processes and statistical methods to provide evidence that these instruments measure what they purport to measure. The science of test design and validation has evolved considerably over the last hundred years, and our education system would benefit if more educators (especially teachers) were familiar with how to use techniques fine-tuned over the last century to create better, more effective assessments.

Claims over what is being measured by a standardized assessment (referred to as a test’s construct) are where claims of scientific rigor can distort understanding of social goals associated with a particular test. For example, tests of well defined academic standards (like Common Core assessments or tests created by states to measure their own language and math standards) have uncontroversial constructs: attainment of the knowledge, skills, and abilities specified in those standards. One can argue over whether those standards correctly define what it means to be proficient in a subject, as well as challenge the priority our educational system places on standardized testing generally. But such legitimate arguments do not require challenging whether a professionally developed test designed to measure mastery of specific content actually does so.

Things begin to get muddier once construct claims broaden, especially into complex aspects of the human condition. For example, college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, which primarily measure language and math skills, say that measurement of those skills reliably predicts future college success. Developers of these exams have decades of research to support this correlation, but any number of factors could lead to strong correlation beyond the strength of the test itself. For example, there might be a third factor (such as income or the education level of parents) or a combination of factors that directly correlates to both SAT/ACT performance and college success, meaning college entrance exams are actually a measurement of this common variable. Such an argument would seem to indicate value in the College Board’s new Adversity Index, albeit at the expense of claims of objectivity in college entrance exams generally.

This is where the social purpose of assessment must be considered, especially since such purposes create pragmatic reasons for accepting quantitative measures built to evaluate constructs (like college success) that can never be determined with certainty. For instance, the SAT, and later the ACT, came into existence to give growing numbers of colleges and universities accepting growing number of students from diverse backgrounds some standardized measure to take into account alongside subjective data such as grades (with grades themselves only becoming standardized around the A-F marking system relatively recently). Given the importance of that goal, perfection in measurement (whatever that means) is not required, merely acceptance that one imperfect measure (standardized test scores) alongside other imperfect ones (like grades) provide human actors (like college admissions officers) the data they need to make reasonable and fair choices most of the time.

Trouble starts, however, when the scientific rigor of the test development process is used to strengthen claims about the measurement and predictive power of an assessment beyond what is warranted.

Supporters of standardized tests understandably want to make strong claims about their accuracy and value, especially since weaker or more qualified claims could harm acceptance of particular tests in the marketplace. But highlighting the virtue of an assessment, without discussing why the social goal behind it might justify its limitations, can lead to unintended and potentially damaging consequences.

An important example of this phenomenon is the trajectory of the Tests of General Educational Development or GED. University of Maryland historian Ethan Hutt, one of the authors of the previously linked history of the A-F grading system, describes how in 1942 (a year after America entered World War II and three years before the war ended) a group of educators gathered in Baltimore to try to solve anticipated post-war demobilization problems. Economic recession and political upheaval had accompanied the disbanding of the large US standing army in World War I (just as similar large-scale demobilizations became sources of unrest throughout history), and those educators sought to avoid a repeat of that pattern by giving veterans maximum access to higher education opportunities.

This foresight culminated in landmark legislation like the G.I. Bill, which not only headed off post-war economic and social unrest, but transformed American education, and America, for the better. In order for veterans to enter college, however, they would have to complete high school and those planners in Baltimore recognized that asking 20-something combat vets to return to their seats in high-school classrooms (or even go to school for the first time) to finish work needed to earn a diploma was unrealistic, and potentially unnecessary given everything soldiers might have learned during their years of military service.

One part of the solution was to assign credit to specific military training programs as well as to academic correspondence courses taken by over a million soldiers throughout the war. But a more lasting reform was the creation of a new assessment—the GED—that would measure not specific high-school content (which was enormously diverse across the 50 states) but, as its creator described, would “provide a measure of a general educational development which results from . . . all of the possibilities for informal self-education which military service involves, as well as the general educational growth incidental to military training an experience as such.”

Hutt refers to this as “contextless” assessment which is based on a radical construct, one which says that, regardless of any particular high school curriculum or life experience, there exists a set of essential elements that add up to being a high-school graduate, elements that can be measured through an instrument like the GED.

Had the GED been accepted as a one-time expedient to benefit those who had sacrificed so much during the war, its impact on American education may have been limited.  But because the rhetoric surrounding the test claimed that a test of essential, contextless elements was as good, if not better, than meeting the graduation requirements of a particular school system, it was just a matter of time before the GED started to be used to give non-veterans access to the same benefit of a high school diploma without completing high school. One can track acceptance of the test’s radical construct as the GED was accepted by more and more states, and the minimum age to take it dropped from 22 to 17.

If one accepts that certain contextless characteristics are the genuine outcome of school, why not remake the curriculum to support development of those characteristics, rather than specific subject matter? As Hutt points out, we have seen a similar dynamic play out as international tests like the PISA (used to rank nations by educational achievement) rely on a similar (this time global) contextless construct to generate results that have inspired nations to transform their educational systems to more effectively compete internationally (with success measured by growth in PISA scores).

Like the SAT and GED, PISA started with worthy, if humbler, goals, with globalization imbuing that test with new meaning and influence. Might something similar happen if a measure of personal adversity gains “cash value” in the educational marketplace?

The College Board has been careful to gather data from public sources and explain how they came up with and are communicating their new Environmental Context Dashboard to stakeholders. But what is to prevent others from constructing profiles based on personal information at the individual level, or students putting together their own profiles, especially if doing so generates an even more accurate version of something whose value has already been established: a number that defines the struggles you face in life?

Might such privacy trade-offs be worth it to achieve the vital purpose behind the Adversity Index: educational equity? And does that noble goal justify other choices, such as supplementing test scores (which individual students have a role in generating) with a numerical value created not by the individual being measured but by an expert assigning him or her to a category?

Perhaps we should talk more about these issues before we start measuring.


Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher and consultant specializing in assessment, online learning and critical-thinking education. His latest book, Critical Thinking, Jonathan’s second for MIT Press, will be published in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @degreeoffree


  1. asdf says

    “It’s a way to get to race without using race. When we used it we increased minority enrollment by X%” -Admissions officer at early adopting school

    We all know what this is about. Race might get struck down by the Supreme Court, so people want a way to get at race without race. The results from the data released by the College Board show that this is basically what the Adversity Score does.

    The SAT, like all standardized tests, is meant to measure ‘g’ or general intelligence. It’s meant to measure it because ‘g’ is highly correlated with future success in college and life. The SAT was originally meant to help find smart kids in non-rich neighborhoods and scoop them up. Later it became a way to measure intelligence more fairly in an era of rampant grade inflation.

    But brown people ain’t got much ‘g’, and Asians got to much, and schools want to achieve a certain racial balance for their own realpolitik reasons (many they would not want to state publicly because they are abhorrent) so the SAT is going to sell them lawsuit armor (plausible deniability) for a high price.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, this is a new secret redlining designed to give a boost based on your neighbors without actual regard to you own life. Isn’t “adversity” accounted for in personal essays? Oh yeah, they probably got rid of much of that because English is racist.

    • Bill says

      It’s all great until they see the first cases where the “lower” the adversity score is used to promote something like housing. They’ve made a proxy for race to insulate themselves from judicial review of protected class violations.

      • yandoodan says

        Bill: “They’ve made a proxy for race …”

        Your point about proxies is well taken — but it backwards. Race is a proxy for adversity, and kind of a lousy one. Before the adversity score, universities would prefer a black lesbian over a white boy any day and twice on Sundays. Now the universities will see poor white male kids with unemployed parents and drug addled cousins getting adversity scores using the same methods as a lesbian daughter of a wealthy black lawyer, raised in a gated community.

        If you want to help the poor, rather than your social and racial compatriots, you could do worse.

        • Michael says

          But if the point of the assessment is to determine whether you’ll be successful in college, why does it matter how much you’ve struggled? If you’re put into an environment you’re not prepared for, won’t you just struggle more?

          I think it’s fairly well established that if you take race out of the equation and place students in the right environment for their level of development or achievement, they actually do better.

          Isn’t that a better way to help the poor? Or anyone? Put them where they have the greatest likelihood of success?

          Regardless of why you might think someone of any race or social or economic background has been unfairly disadvantaged, it doesn’t seem that you can change that by giving them more than they can handle because you think they deserve the chance.

  2. Caligula says

    “For example, college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, which primarily measure language and math skills, say that measurement of those skills reliably predicts future college success. Developers of these exams have decades of research to support this correlation …”

    Yes, we all understand (I hope) that correlation does not imply causality. The question here is, so what?

    Consider an insurance company that wants to set competitive rates for car insurance. A rational insurer will look for anything and everything with a significant correlation to actuarial risk. And even if many of these correlations have little if anything to do with causality, why would the insurer care? What they care about is, “how much is this insured likely to cost us?”

    And so too with predicting academic success. It does no one any good to flunk out of college, as the flunked-out are left with often massive debt and no degree to show for it. A test that is a good predictor of academic success need not justify itself in any other way to be valuable for both the test-taker and the school.

    Further, if this correlation does not reflect causality then it would seem the schools must be at fault, as they must be flunking out students for reasons unrelated to their academic abilities.

    And perhaps they are, but, the burden of proof here belongs on those who assert this and not on those who wish to use a test with good predictive capability.

    • Ray Andrews says


      Well said. There is a hidden premise in all this that college should be seen as a welfare program. But if the affirmatively actioned are not up to the task, then they either flunk out, having wasted everyone’s time and money, or, more likely, the standards are dumbed down to make it possible for them to ‘succeed’. As a semi-socialist, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Resources should be put where they can do the most good, particularly as I believe that the successful do owe something back to the society that made their success possible. That is, your success is of benefit to me too, thus education should focus on those most likely to succeed — for the benefit of all.

      “correlation does not imply causality”

      An over-used deepity. Indeed, correlation is often more than sufficient to establish a conclusion or a policy. We knew that smoking was intimately linked to lung cancer long before it was proven in the mathematical sense. 100% of people who jump in the lake get wet, is that proof that jumping into the lake gets you wet? Probably not, strictly speaking, but formal proof is not really required. If you jump in the lake, you will get wet every time.

      • asdf says

        “Indeed, correlation is often more than sufficient to establish a conclusion or a policy.”


        “Would a betting man want to take that bet?” is usually good enough criteria to be used on shaping opinion and public policy.

      • James Smith says

        Excellent points, Caligula and Ray.
        People mindlessly parrot the mantra “correlation does not imply causation.”
        But as you say, causation is not this issue here. The issue is whether the SAT is a good predictor of college success. And it is.
        Someone with a 400 on their math SAT is never going to make it through an engineering or physics major. Whether they are rich or poor or in-between

        • Peter from Oz says

          James Smith

          But what if you don’t want to do engineering or physics?

          • James Smith says

            Someone who has a 400 on their verbal will be lost in her literature course at Harvard. And will never write the great American Novel.

      • TarsTarkas says

        Moving the admission goalposts closer or further away depending upon your culture or economic background pisses off those who worked hard regardless of their upbringing and sets up for failure those not educationally prepared for higher education. Education starts at an early age. Lots of disadvantaged parents know it, that’s why charter schools are so popular with them. Primary and secondary education should not be a jobs program.

        • “Primary and secondary education should not be a jobs program.”
          Best point I’ve read right here, TarsTarkas… Thanks!

          I think it happened before I was old enough to have any understanding of the world, maybe in the Regan administration. Big Business has bought out the education system in this country for their own benefit. A college education used to be for its own sake. Something you did to grow personally and become a more well-rounded person, regardless of what you did for a living. Language arts, history, anthropology and a handful of basic science and math classes were the foundation for a well-educated populous that was capable of understanding the world around them… it must be why we are sliding down this shit-slope into the swamp as we speak.

          We need to stop lying to ourselves and use the correct terminology. College is no longer about education, it is about job training and we need to treat it as such. Accounting is not an education, it is a business function. Software Designer is not an education… it is a JOB TITLE!

          A quality education should be a right to every living human in this country regardless of ANY hardship or test scores. Give the corporation back their shitty job training to do themselves and give us back our education!

          • lewis guignard says

            Public education has long been about workforce development. i.e. When my youngest was in middle school I asked her: “Do you get in more trouble for being late or for not doing your homework? – Being late she replied.” Why? because being on time at work is critical for the industrialized economy we have. (As a boss, I agree)
            Further, public schools have become jobs programs for teachers, administrators and teacher’s union. They have not been about education for decades. Competition is the only cure. Vouchers, private schools, charter schools, home schools. But, you will notice, the teacher’s union oppose them all, because they care not about education but control of spending of your tax dollars.

      • The premise behind the premise is that college is for for everyone, it is not. Fortunately in other countries, apprenticeships, technical schools, and education in the performing arts are all valid options for any given number of career paths. Germany is probably the best example of this, resulting in low unemployment, a highly skilled workforce, wage growth and high living standards for most people, regardless of access to university.
        The college access debate is redundant; the same energy that is used to fight for or resist diversity, should be put to good use lobbying for different kinds of skill based education opportunities.

    • David of Kirkland says

      The insurance, like banking, also used secret redlining maps. What can go wrong?

      • Bill says

        What do you mean indicators of chronic conditions mean insurance pays more and we should restrict pre-existing conditions?

        What do you mean the persons buying homes in that inner city are more likely to default and we should stop making those loans?

        Yep…what could possibly go wrong!

      • lewis guignard says

        Elimination of redlining and associated social polices led to the Great Recession.

    • ROBERT VESSEL says

      I understand it is very difficult to flunk out these days. I entered a large, land-grant, midwestern university in 1960; 53% of my freshman class never came back after the first semester; the second semester saw 20+% of what was left drop or flunk out. Today I’m told students are “customers.”

  3. Kevin Herman says

    The people hurt the most by this are students that can’t do the work once they get into a school they shouldn’t be in although lets be honest even some of the finest schools have become degree mills meaning show up to every class and attempt to do the course material and you’ll get through eventually with the degree.

    • asdf says

      “The people hurt the most by this are students that can’t do the work once they get into a school”

      False. They might graduate anyway. And they might move on to a cushy make work career afterwards due to the same forces that got them into school in the first place. While there are probably some individuals harmed by mismatch, it doesn’t seem to stop most people from grabbing what they can when they can. Which means they think getting into a better school than they deserve is more likely to lead to a good outcome than not.

      The people MOST HARMED are the individuals that would have gotten in and didn’t. This had a huge negative impact on their life and was totally unjust. We should talk less about mismatch theory and these poor poor minorities that are getting lots of nice things they don’t deserve (poor bastards) and more about the people getting crushed so it can happen.

      The second more harmed group are any future people that have to suffer from being provided sub-standard services by the mediocre and incompetent. Or the co-workers that will have to cover for them and their fuck ups.

      • Caligula says

        There are many harms, and you’ve mentioned just a few.

        Consider the effect of racial preferences in medical school admissions. As the old joke goes, “What do you call the person who graduated with the lowest passing grade from medical school? ‘Doctor.'”

        Yet it’s not just the public that is harmed by lowering admissions standards to medical school but also physicians who might have (but didn’t) benefit from these lowered standards.

        For if you’re seeing a physician for an annoying ingrown toenail you can afford to put your doubts to rest, but what if you’re contemplating a necessary yet risky surgery? You’d feel bad rejecting a physician just for being someone who might have benefited from a preference yet sometimes you (well, OK, not YOU but the person next to you) may feel you can’t afford this added risk.

        So, some may benefit from these preferences, but because that outstanding physician looks like them he’ll just have to live with this?

      • Hey Blinkin says

        More to your point.

        It is hard to dispute that society at large wants individuals that come from historically disenfranchised communities to have the full opportunity for personal advancement. What we often see happening are minority students with an incoming interest in STEM fields but test scores on the lower end of elite colleges admission standards get admitted despite their scores. They are then less likely to excel in their chosen STEM classes causing them to transfer majors to a less rigorous and perhaps more grievance based major. If these students were admitted to a state school instead of an Ivy, they would be more likely to be with their intellectual peers and more likely to be successful in their STEM classes. There is a trickle down effect for all of academia that could be solved if the elite schools stopped admitting kids who are not qualified to be there.

        The elite schools get to pat themselves on the back because they achieve their ideal diversity ratio and the rest of the country suffers because we have more gender studies professors and fewer black doctors.

        Our world is facing some serious issues in the coming decades. We are not going to solve them by achieving the best mix of diversity in colleges and universities, but by ensuring that we put our best and brightest in the most rigorous programs.

    • Closed Range says


      Quite right. It doesn’t take them long to realise they are at the bottom of the class, and they end up feeling worse about their studies than they would have it theyd been to a less prestigious school. Some of them go one step further and start blaming the system, the curriculum, and others for their poor performance throughout their studies – hence all the accusations of the curriculum being at fault for their failures, typically expressed in the form of the curriculum being too “colonial”.

      A basic standard of decent parenting is that we set people up for success and not failure, so why do people abandon that idea when it comes to giving places to students who are simply not going to have a chance?

  4. James Smith says

    The detested Jordan P makes the point that the US Army won’t take someone with an IQ below 85 (the Army actually has their own IQ-equivalent test)
    because there is nothing such people can adequately do in the service, and they endanger their fellows because of their propensity to make life-threatening mistakes.
    It doesn’t matter what “adversity” the army applicant has faced, At IQ (read “SAT score”) below 85, they are not going to contribute to the purpose of the service.

  5. PaulNu says

    If someone isn’t strong enough do you tell them to lift less weight or more weight? Which will more likely result in them becoming strong enough?

    In the United States we tell minorities that they aren’t smart enough and so we will pass them through the system without having to perform as well as others. If they are in fact behind because they are disadvantaged, at some point they will have to work harder than everyone else to catch up. Continually lowering the bar will never result in catching up.

    • asdf says

      Why would affirmative action ever end? Many of these people will graduate from fluff majors and go on to have fluff careers. Employers will want them for the same reason universities want them, and will make things easy for them in the same way. Maybe not efficient, but most large companies have enough corporate fat and monopoly power to handle it at least over the medium term.

  6. Asenath Waite says

    It seems like it would make more sense and be more effective to work on improving education at underperforming high schools, rather than simply accepting more students into colleges whose high schools inadequately prepared them to handle college-level coursework, which is what the aim of this adversity index seems to be. I would think that this latter strategy would only set such students up for failure in college, in general.

  7. Geary Johansen says

    Like most leftist dogma, this system tires to fix problems downstream of where the problem actually occurs. The progressive education system does a barely adequate job at educating middle-class and upper-middle class kids, because it’s deeply flawed methodology can be somewhat compensated for with a knowledge-rich home environment. But the only thing that can help kids from poor backgrounds, is highly structured, rigidly-enforced, low-level disciplinary codes which provide a framework for a knowledge-intensive learning program. The data is indisputable- of the 5 – 10% of charter and free schools that perform at the top end of the curve, ALL use such systems or service higher socio-economic groups- either that or they’re cheating in some way, by simply not advertising certain aspects of their methodology or utilising second chance mechanisms which game the system.

    The Michaela Community School in London, is achieving results three years ahead of the national average and comparable to those from China, for poor, inner city, multi-ethnic kids from high crime neighbourhoods, chosen by lottery. When will the broken progressive education system finally admit that they have made a huge blunder, in choosing to use unscientific wishful-thinking to calibrate their flawed methodology? The fact that in many cases they are now using ‘knowledge’ from the now completely discredited ideas laundry of ‘grievance’ studies, to attempt to ‘help’ marginalised groups in some schools, only compounds their error and harms kids.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Yes, they are cheating in some way – by removing under-performing students because those students can drag down outcomes and push up costs. It easy to outperform public schools when you take the strongest students and kick out the problem kids.

      This is really, really well-known about charter schools by now. The fact that you either don’t know this or aren’t acknowledging it speaks very poorly to your credibility.

      • Peter from Oz says


        ”The Michaela Community School in London, is achieving results three years ahead of the national average and comparable to those from China, for poor, inner city, multi-ethnic kids from high crime neighbourhoods, chosen by lottery. ”
        The last three words of that show that it can be done without having to pick the best children, just the ones whose parents are interested in them getting a good education.
        Problem children should be removed from all public schools, then all the remaining children would immeidatley do much better. The problem children do drag everyone down.
        WHere do we put the problem children is the question that remains. I think they need to go to what we used to call Approved Schools, with much tougher discipline, unifroms and very basic three Rs type education.

      • Geary Johansen says

        The data proves that high preforming public schools are more guilty of this than charters such as Success Academy in NY. The NYT is no longer a credit-worthy news source on such matters, because of it’s overly ideological progressive slant and support for teachers unions.

        You have to ask yourself, if charters were so bad then why are African American parents so desperate to get their kids into them, even going so far as to protest at Albany. For a more informed view on charters try watching several of the pieces on Success Academy on the main libertarian YouTube channel, Reason TV, or watch the classroom discussion session of Glen Loury & John McWhorter on

        The argument over Charter vs Public is an argument over the structure and profit-status of public schools- which distracts from the main point- it’s about methodology!!! In rejecting the progressive methodological approach championed by Sir Ken Robinson in his now famous TED talk- which has become increasingly prevalent, ideological and detrimental to kids since it’s inception in the 60s and 70s- a brave few schools serving poor, multi-ethnic, inner city kids are outperforming upper-middle class kids, with every advantage in life.

        If you don’t believe me, then why is it that today’s kids are basically unable to tackle the difficulty levels of equivalent-level exam papers from the late 50s? With progressive education theory, things get worse, not better, time and again. At least the British government is now at last, finally, beginning to reverse some of the damaging dogma that has dominated educational academia for so long- albeit in a very quiet and discreet manner- designed to protect the educational establishment and, by extension, their own history of poor decision-making. They’re even thinking about putting textbooks back in the classroom…

  8. James Williams says

    Historical data appear to indicate that, as the author stated, “college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, which primarily measure language and math skills, say that measurement of those skills reliably predicts future college success.”

    That historical correlation, however, no longer exists after decades-long efforts by the College Board to make the SAT easier. For many years, the percentage of matriculating students who test remedial in reading, writing, and math has ranged from 40 to 80%, depending on the type of college. In addition, approximately 60% of undergraduates drop out before the end of their second year because they find the work too difficult . . . even though the undergraduate curriculum has been dumbed down considerably over the last 50 years.

    The new “adversity score” seems on its face to be an effort to guard against rising legal complaints about Affirmative Action admissions and its goal of proportional representation. But the available data indicate that the Affirmative Action mission was accomplished (indeed, exceeded) many years ago.

    Based on the total estimated US population in 2016, for example, African Americans made up approximately 13.3%, whereas counted Hispanics made up 17.8%. Whites made up 62% of the total population, whereas Asians made up 5.7%. Yet the National Center for Education Statistics (2016b) reported that undergraduate enrollments as a percentage of each population group in 2015 were as follows:
    • White = 41.8%
    • African Americans = 34.9%
    • Hispanic = 36.9%
    • Asians = 62.6%
    These data show that white students are underrepresented and that African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian are significantly overrepresented.

    So what is the “adversity score” really about? Opening the door to higher education for an even larger group of unprepared students.

    • Bill says

      40 years ago when I started at Penn State, I was flabbergasted that there was even such a thing as remedial math/vocab classes. There would be a small handful of people in there. Now? They’re full.

      • James Williams says

        Here in California, our state universities have eliminated all remedial courses so as to encourage more unprepared students to apply and attend.

    • Asenath Waite says

      @James Williams

      “These data show that white students are underrepresented and that African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian are significantly overrepresented.”

      Didn’t you say that those numbers were the percentage of each population group? So for example, they would be saying that 34.9 percent of the total black population (not of the general population of the US) had enrolled in college, compared to 41.8 percent of the total white population. Am I understanding that correctly? If so, how would black people be overrepresented in comparison to white people?

      I agree with your larger point about the US educational system having been dumbed down.

      • James Williams says

        Asenath, the data are related to proportional representation. For example, Asians make up 5.7% of the US population according to US census data. Among that group, 62.6% go on to attend college. With regard to whites and African Americans, although the total percentage of whites in the population is higher than the total percentage of African Americans, a higher percentage of African Americans go on to college. If the college enrollments were equal proportionately, we would see white enrollment equal to their percentage of the population. Same for African Americans, Hispanics, etc.

        • Citizen XY says

          James wrote: “… a higher percentage of African Americans go on to college. If the college enrollments were equal proportionately,
          we would see white enrollment equal to their percentage of the population. Same for African Americans, Hispanics, etc.”

          Asenath was right, James.
          Math skills. You’re as bad as the ridiculous SJWs and feminists with sense of proportions.

          If the target is group representation in college to be of equal proportion to the group representation in the population,
          then the proportion of each group going to college should be THE SAME.
          For example, 30% of whites, 30% of blacks, 30% of asians, etc. going to college.
          Doesn’t matter whether it’s 10%, 30%, or 80%, it should the same proportion of each group.

          Given the numbers you presented:
          % of population: Whi:62 His:17.8 Blk:13.3 Asn:5.7
          % of group in college: Whi:41.8 His:36.9 Blk:34.9 Asn:62.6
          With a little algebra it is possible to calculate the proportion of the population going to college, and that comes out to be 42%.
          To get the same proportionate group representation in college as in the population (62% of college attendees white, 17.8% hispanics, etc.),
          then 42% of the white population should be going to college, 42% of the black population should be going to college, and so on.

          So what we see from your numbers is whites are the only group which meet this.
          Hispanics and blacks are a little ‘under-represented’ and asians are way ‘over-represented’.

          I’m only pointing out here that what you claim the numbers show is not what they show.
          I’m not presenting this in support of affirmative action.
          I’m of the opinion that expecting and demanding proportionate representation of whatever groups in whatever endeavour is silliness (see also sex/STEM/Google).

          Here in Canada in the past year or so we’ve had (at least) two instances in the national media of complaints “the outdoors is racist”.
          Some non-white person(s) went out out on trails in the forest and encountered mostly white people, and felt ‘uncomfortable’ because they weren’t seeing themselves ‘represented’. And of course it’s white people’s fault and action is necessary.
          Canada competes with Sweden for levels of stupidity in the arena of progressivism.

          • Asenath Waite says

            @Citizen XY

            Oh, I didn’t see this comment before responding to James. Yes, thanks.

        • Asenath Waite says

          @James Williams

          I don’t think that makes sense. If you are talking only about percentage within a particular racial group, it doesn’t matter what percentage of the total US population that racial group makes up. The percentages can be compared directly between the races. If there were 10,000 white people in the US and 1000 black people, and 4,180 of those white people attend college, and 349 of those black people attend college, a higher percentage of white people are going to college than black people. If there were 10,000 black people and 3,490 went to college, compared to 418 out of 1000 white people, black people would still be underrepresented in college in terms of percentage of their own population compared to the percentage of white people within their own population. In order to say that black people were overrepresented, you would need to look at the total college population, combining all races. If black people made up greater than 13.3 percent of that population, you could say that they were overrepresented. The data you present do not demonstrate this.

    • Rev. Wazoo! says

      Fascinating stats! I want them and more so please post the link.

      • James Williams says

        Rev. Wazoo, all the data come from the US Census website. If you want specific reference links, a full biography is in my recent book, THE DECLINE IN EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS: FROM A PUBLIC GOOD TO A QUASI-MONOPOLY.

  9. Castro Simplex says

    The ending comment is dead wrong. It isn’t that “we should talk more about these issues before we start measuring.” Instead use the scientific method. Form a hypothesis (is there a hypothesis?), and then measure, measure, measure.

    Talking about “these issues” merely delays the actual work of determining if the measurements have predictive value.

  10. Rev. Wazoo! says

    A thoughtful piece and as intended, thought provoking. A couple of quotes stand out, however, as being somewhat bait-and-switch thus making vague an examination otherwise admirable for circumscribing a topic of potentially limitless discussion within a manageable scope.

    “If one accepts that certain contextless characteristics are the genuine outcome of school…”
    The referenced GED exam never made this claim; indeed as school is the precise context it was designed to remove from testing for “certain characteristics” this is something of an oxymoron.

    This is not to gainsay the subsequent question whether schools might wisely seek to inculcate the characteristics being measured by the GED (General Education Development tests for Quillette’s international readership.) But the difference between education and schooling is why the GED was created so glossing over that difference muddies the central discussion of assessing people rather than their academic history.

    Similarly, the earlier quote from Hutt, “…regardless of any particular high school curriculum or life experience, there exists a set of essential elements that add up to being a high-school graduate…” conflates having achieved certain schooling (“being a high school graduate”) with achieving a general education sufficient enough to be a good enough bet to benefit from the limited opportunities of studying formally.

    And that betting aspect of it is integral because it assumes the fallibility of the admissions process; if a uni graduates over 90% of its admitted freshman it either isn’t making many bets or it’s fixing the game to maintain the illusion of its admissions infallibility – or both. Herein lies the crux: is university a place to impart knowledge and the ability to create knowledge or is it a sink-or-swim testing ground discovering who can navigate temptation well enough to jump through admittedly serious hoops whilst in a chaotic candy store of alcohol, pot, ecstasy and sexual experimentation along with a cohort of other teenagers/young adolescents.

    This environment and the skills to navigate it are profoundly different from the one which greeted GIs returning from the war or even the peacetime draft. They were subject to in loco parentis rules: zero alcohol in the single-sex dorms which had curfews; attendance required in all classes, many of which were strictly graded on a curve such that a C was the most frequent grade and severe repercussions for even minor infractions of the rules. Ironically, the farm boys and street urchins who were accustomed to the military’s regimentation gained similar skills as the well-off kids did at their boarding schools: how to tow the line most of the time but transgress around the edges enough for sanity’s sake, as was indeed expected.

    Imagine a university run on these lines today and one nearly free for those from poor families. I think it would be very successful at ‘leveling the playing field’ for those raised without the requisite skills to navigate the chaotic churn which universities have become, assuming a significant number are expelled if they just plain fuck up to blatantly.

  11. MMS says

    On the one hand this addresses my biggest concern about many AA practices: They do not address Class. Not many people in any kind of power are stupid enough to care anything about how much melanin one has in their skin (only idiots would and by definition few idiots have real power).

    What is important in our society now is class (despite what SJWs would maintain).

    If you grow up in classic high middle to upper class circumstances having more melanin in your skin may be, on the main, an advantage if anything. But if you grow up in what would classically be considered low socio-economic circumstances, you may have extra challenges irrespective of your “race”.

    Simply, this new practice attempts to address the reality that my extremely gifted and “privileged” neighbor of Nigerian decent is not given extra advantage over a poor child from a bust town in West Virginia who happens to be of some anglo decent. It becomes more a matter of if the shoe fits wear it vs. just blindly give to people because of some superficial physical trait

    However, on the other hand, it fails given the reality that some children from economically poor backgrounds may well in fact be from excellent “socio” backgrounds (anyone old enough to remember the show “Good Times” those folks, and folks like them, were “poor” only in an economic sense. They were socially and genetically superior. It was only a matter of time for achievement and money to follow their children, which for many it did, just look around you now, many of those of us who happen to have high melanin counts succeed beautifully)…

    So the bottom line is that this proposed practice is likely a bit better than those simply based on “race” but still reduces the individual to some category.

    Damn time we stop reducing individuals to categories of any kind… .

    • Asenath Waite says


      I agree that class is infinitely more important than race in contemporary western society, so it’s good that this adversity index score focuses on that instead of race, even though it still doesn’t make sense to simply send unprepared students of any race to college rather than trying to improve their high school educations so that they will be better prepared and can be admitted to college on their own merits. But at any rate, my guess is that the adversity score will primarily be used as an excuse for colleges to admit less qualified racial minorities to reach racial quotas that the schools want, rather than giving help to students from low income areas regardless race. At least it doesn’t help provide an additional advantage to students from wealthy families who happen to be racial minorities, though, as you mention.

  12. Fran says

    It is heartbreaking to have to deal with students who are very nice people, but are completely incapable of handling the material.

  13. Quindarious Gooch says

    And I presume it must obviously be just as legal to use a similar “adversity score” as a negative factor in, say, selecting job candidates, or renters, where one might want to maximize profits and minimize the chance of being the victim of crime?

    • MMS says

      @Gooch – “…adversity score” as a negative factor…” The point you make here is withering and hits home… We must stop any form of discrimination based on identity (no mater weather or not it is construed to be “positive” or negative).

  14. Rev. Wazoo! says

    Texas uses a crude but effective method to bridge the gap for students from inferior schools: they admit the top 10% to all public colleges and universities excepting the flagship University of Texas at Austin where it’s the top 6%. Reasonable but lenient test scores are also needed from a variety of reading and math testing sources.

    This seems to square the circle while also cutting through the bullshit delusion that somehow qualified applicants magically equal precise number of places available.

    • How has that worked out for UofT at Austin ? Evidence shows that it has brought down the academic rigor of the school. Why ? Because schools are not equal, grade inflation, etc…..

    • I would disagree that the system used in Texas is effective. Observe the number of unqualified students (presumably from schools with weak academic standards) at UT Austin who either fail as early as freshmen year, or move to less rigorous majors. These students are not only unqualified to be at UT Austin, they may not even be qualified for less rigorous academic institutions. Just because they were in the top 6% of their class does not give them the qualifications (or the right) to be at an institution of higher learning. And in addition to G’s point below, this system has seen many students from more challenging high schools (who despite not being in the top 6% of their class, have academic credentials far exceeding students admitted to UT Austin under the auto-admission program) to out-of-state institutions. Once that talent leaves the state, it does not always return. I’m not sure I understand how any one could claim this to be a success.

      Finally, I do agree with another poster that the issue of educational inequality should be addressed earlier in a child’s educational upbringing as it is a real issue. However, it is not (and should not be) the obligation of a university to provide remedial education to unqualified students.

  15. Peter from Oz says

    New South Wales has publicy administered exams at the end of the 12th year of school. Each student who finishes Year 12 obtains a Higher School Certificate listing the marks obtained in each subject he or she took in Year 12, based 50% on the exam and 50% on class work. The results for each student are aggregated into a final mark which is then converted into an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (”ATAR”) which compares a student’s results to all other Year 12 students in the State. The ATAR is out of 100. The universities then determine the ATAR that is necessary for an applicant to be admitted to study for each degree course offered. Medicine, law (usually in combination with Arts, Economics or Science), architecture, vet science, dentistry, engineering, pharmacy are all undergraduate degrees for which you apply, as well as the general studies such as BA, BSc or BEc. Rarely do the universities interview applicants. Places in degree courses are granted on the basis of the ATAR.
    This system seems to produce a good outcome. Of course some lefty idiots are bound to ruin it all by insisting that there are enough members of one ”disadvantaged” group getting places in the top courses. But the answer to that is that anyone from any school has the capacity to get into a good unvirsity course if they have the aptitutde and study hard enough. The state cannot be expected to make parents interested in education.
    The left seems to be gripped by the myth that somehow every child has the potential to be a lawyer, doctor or successful entrepreneur and that the education system is holding back geniuses who were born into lower socio-economic groups. The fact is that we need people to do the dull jobs. Not everyone can be a professional or a business person.

  16. Cedric says

    Two things:

    1) yes, this adversity index is bad for people who, for example, are SO close to getting into Harvard (or a comparable school) but who get beaten out by a less qualified, but more adversity-stricken, student. The reality, though, is that the student who got rejected will still end up at a great university, get a great education (hopefully more education than indoctrination), and get a good job. Probably not the end of the world. I didn’t get into the fanciest college, but I have all of the above (minus the indoctrination).

    2) as is typical with these equality of outcome ideas, this program will end up hurting those it strives to help. Giving an adversity-stricken student a leg up on more prepared, educated, smarter students places that kid amongst non-adversity-stricken students who are SO smart, SO prepared, SO educated that they didn’t need adversity indexes to get into the fancy school. The result is that the adversity-stricken student gets demolished and either drops out or barely hangs on.

  17. Geary Johansen says

    Just has a break through moment by watching Jonathan Haidt, followed by Raj Chetty on YouTube. It is basically a continuation of previous comments on Quillette. Jonathan Haidt was discussing how asteroids (or threats) which can be linked together, can actually reduce political polarisation rather than exacerbating it. His point was leftists care about income inequality. The right cares about families. Stable two parent families prevent income inequality, as stability and resources spent on kids improves their life outcomes. Raj Chetty was looking at social mobility, or the lack thereof, and was outlining how stable two parents families increase upward social mobility. But crucially, kids from single parent families living in two parent family neighbourhoods did better than kids from two parent families living in predominately single parent neighbourhoods. It’s as though a high ratio of fathers in a neighbourhood act as an immunising against some against some agent of social deprivation- against what I hear you ask- peer group!

    Jordan Peterson, in one of his talks, raised the issue of the Cambridge Somerville study- where boys from deprived backgrounds and with histories of delinquency where given idyllic summer camp experiences. The hope was that the better boys would better socialise the more poorly behaved boys- unfortunately, the reverse happened. What a higher father ratio in neighbourhoods is probably doing is inculcating a narrative of stoicism, hard work & personal responsibility, whilst providing a resource of mentoring for future life goals, greatly reducing the threat of negative peer group socialisation.

    But why are peer groups so harmful, in neighbourhoods with a high proportion of single parents- inequality. We know that inequality, rather than poverty, drives crime. More specifically, I think that it’s the belief that the system is fundamentally unfair, rigged against you, that drives high crime. This also explains the seven to eight times higher crime rate amongst blacks, with some crimes, as opposed to whites. In this scenario, it only takes one friend in a close circle of four to six friends to create feedback for this narrative within the group, to make the narrative perceptually true- and with the absence of productive, moderately successful fathers to contradict this narrative, this it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Now nobody is saying that systemic and structural racism don’t exist, but when, in the Stanford Study, black girl seem able to overcome whatever additional hurdles exist as a barrier to succeed, achieving income levels and social mobility equal to their white peers, and black boys do not, questions need to be raised. Thinking about this in a historical context, this is probably why it is almost a anthropologically universal constant, as to why boys were put through a rites of passage, travelling from the feminine sphere to the masculine, as soon as puberty began to hit- with every successful society in the history of the world, recognising the need to give boys meaning and purpose, a productive road map for their future.

    This also explains why highly structured schools, with strictly enforced low-level discipline policies are so successful in delivering knowledge-intensive learning. The structure probably acts as a surrogate to fathers, to some extent. The Massachusetts curriculum raises standards incredibly, by comparison to the broken progressive system, but it does not eliminate disparity. Structure and discipline, used in conjunction with this program of education, might. Whilst the reason for disparity are complex, the solution is not. In addition to copying these highest performing school program into the general public system, there needs to be a national push to use admirable, productive, older males volunteering to articulate them into developing a better life path. This also explains why frat houses sometimes develop unhealthy attitudes towards young women.Toxic masculinity isn’t a social disease passed from father to son, it’s a virus incubated within young all-male peer groups, bereft of the natural immunity passed on by stoical older males.

    • Stephanie says

      Geary, I agree with much of what you said, but I’d quibble on inequality being the source of crime. That someone else on the other side of town has much more than you should not affect your behaviour unless you have a serious character flaw where you are entitled and greedy. That is certainly the case for some people, but that comes down to a more fundamental issue: poor values and poor upbringing. The higher crime rate in the black community isn’t because they are poorer in an unequal society, it is as you explain earlier in your comment, because of the lack of fathers.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Stephanie and lydia00

        Yeah, it’s inequality and not poverty that drives crime. Blame the social science types for figuring that one out. It’s something Jordan Peterson raised in one of his earlier podcasts with Joe Rogan and the data backs him up. A Nobel prize winner Gary Becker first proposed the theory, and several studies have been done (although I only looked at the summary from the World Bank one). My idea that the key element is resentment and the belief that the system is rigged against you, because of your socio-economic class or group status is admittedly a supposition based on anecdotal evidence from a number of interviews from reputed news sources, as well as the observation that if you believe the game is rigged then you will feel less guilt about breaking the rules yourself, but there are other factors as well.

        At the most basic level, high income inequality makes for a target-rich environment, greatly increasing the likelihood of crimes of opportunity. But we also know that those who perceive themselves as having lower levels of social status, will fight to remedy the situation through status competition, especially if male and especially if they fall at the high tail end of the aggression spectrum. We even know that lower social status changes brain chemistry, giving individuals a greater tolerance for risk. As an aside, this might also explain why so many successful entrepreneurs seem to come from humbler social origins, propelling themselves into a higher social status through the mechanisms of hard work and resilience, although this too might be an anecdotal observation on my part, based on personal experience.

        It’s my view that being deprived of admirable male role models is toxic for young men. At best it can lead to a well of hopelessness and despair, as the young man finds himself rudderless, with no way to steer his destiny, and no mechanism for seeking guidance and help. Welfare, drug addiction and homelessness can all result from this scenario. At worst, crime seems to be a psychological workaround, which provides a temporary fix, in the form of raised status within a similarly disaffected peer group, but without tackling the underlying and deeper problems, in their lives. Tragically, most seem to know that death, injury and incarceration are the likely outcome of their lifestyle, but see it as preferable to resigning themselves to the alternative. An observation of Dr Warren Farrell really hit home on this subject, as of all the mass shootings involving eight or more victims and all the instances of homegrown terrorism in the West, all bar one came from father-deprived circumstances.

  18. Tim says

    This article is not comparing like with like.

    The GED, PISA, etc are meant to measure what you know. And are expected and intended to be predictive because of that.

    This Adversity Index is not like those. As noted, the goal is “equity”, or helping treat individuals systematically differently so that different groups can end up with more similar metrics. That goal is exactly contrary to being predictive at the individual level.

    The demonstrated usefulness of standard measures of knowledge and ability, does not indicate that adjusting for things other than knowledge and ability will be similarly useful.

  19. Kauf Buch says

    RADICAL CONCEPT: Have colleges accept applicants based on their (high) INTELLIGENCE.

    OR: is intelligence “raaaaaacisssssst”?
    (…asking rhetorically…for a friend…)
    Because, if so, that would give credence to those racial bell curves no one wants to look at.

  20. Jonfrum says

    Just another way to get low-intelligence minorities into college. Not that it will help them learn anything – with a mean IQ of 85, the great majority of African Americans just can’t do college work. That is, real college work, not ‘History of Comic Books.’

  21. Philip says

    Choosing people on any other ground than competence is discrimination. And all discrimination, including positive discrimination is wrong.

  22. Barney Doran says

    The score could be called the VQ for Victimization Quotient. Having a high VQ would then become the prime criterion for school and college acceptance, hiring, and especially for participation in a social justice government. Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

  23. R Henry says

    The purpose of any examination must be to objectively determine whether or not a certain individual knows something or can complete a certain task. Otherwise, why bother attempting to test?

    The Adversity Index smashes this goal, and replaces objective measurement with the merely subjective.

    Just as Moral Relativism eventually boils down to no morality at all, the Adversity Index eventually boils down to no measurement at all. This, of course is entirely consistent with the currents of contemporary Western Culture. We are unwilling to accept basic facts about humanity.

    Some people are smarter than other people. Some people are more industrious than others. Some people are taller or stronger than others. These facts exist independently of any bigotry, discrimination, or historical background.

    The Adversity Index essentially seeks to assert that the only reason some individuals perform at lower levels is the result of some “adversity.” With this flawed premise, the Adversity Index cannot provide any meaningful benefit to our society.

  24. Douglas Levene says

    If you are the parent of a smart, hardworking high school student, and you live in a middle class neighborhood with mostly intact families, don’t let your children take the SAT. Have him take the ACT, instead to avoid the SAT penalty for coming from a middle class family.

  25. My city created subsidized housing units in middle class neighborhoods decades ago. How will the adversity score be affected for those kids.

    • Lisa G says

      I wondered the same. I can think of several small towns on the San Francisco peninsula, for example, where everyone in the town shares the same zip code, but there are huge differences in income and parent education levels for students who all attend the same public high school. Folks who live in the hills in large homes with lovely views of the bay vs. folks who live in the flats or in apartment blocks on the other side of the tracks or El Camino or whatever. How would that work?

      The other thing I find puzzling about this is the idea that students wouldn’t ever know their Adversity Index number. I’ve read that the plan is that this number would not be shared with the student/families. The representative quoted from the College Board (my apologies for forgetting the source) indicated that they were still open to input about the program. It seems that there would be some sort of mechanism for challenging a score that was too low, right? I can see the angling to raise one’s AI now. What a nightmare!

  26. The Reticulator says

    I don’t have a problem with universities that wish to use some sort of adversity score for admissions. I do have a problem with the College Board being the agency that provides this score. I’d rather they focus on the tests, and that some other means be developed to measure adversity. I think the 3rd to last paragraph addresses this, if I understand it correctly.

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