A common defense of affirmative action in college admissions is that it simply adjusts for difficult childhood circumstances. Under this theory, students from underrepresented groups score below their true ability level on the SAT due to poverty or discrimination or a lack of fancy test prep, but they will thrive once brought to an enriching university environment. If true, affirmative action would not involve any lowering of admission standards, but rather a fairer appraisal of each applicant’s abilities.
It’s not true. Researchers have known for decades that SAT scores predict college performance for poor and minority students about as well as they do for everyone else. To the extent there is a difference, the SAT actually over-predicts their performance. Therefore, if the goal is to find the students who will be most academically successful, colleges should not bump up applicants’ SAT scores on the basis of poverty or race.
That’s one reason why the College Board’s new “adversity score” is so troubling. By providing schools with a secret quantification of each applicant’s childhood environment, the College Board furthers the myth that the SAT is predictively biased along socioeconomic lines. According to the New York Times:
Admissions officers have also tried for years to find ways to gauge the hardships that students have had to overcome, and to predict which students will do well in college despite lower test scores. The new adversity score is meant to be one such gauge.
If so, we already know it doesn’t work. The College Board’s own data (see page 42) show that test scores and high school grades predict college performance about equally across all adversity levels. An exception is for students at the highest levels of adversity where, once again, their college GPA is slightly below expectations, not above.
In reality, there is no merit-based case for affirmative action in college admissions. Proponents should acknowledge that their chief interest is not merit, but social justice. “Diversity is so important to our schools and to broader society that lowering standards is a worthy price to pay,” they should declare. That would be a reminder that affirmative action — like all hotly debated issues — involves inherent trade-offs, and it’s up to the public to decide how to weigh them.