WASHINGTON – The earnest improvers at the College Board, which administers the SAT, should ponder Abraham Maslow’s law of the instrument. In 1966, Maslow, a psychologist, said essentially this: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The College Board wants to solve a complex social problem that it and its test are unsuited to solve.
The College Board has embraced a dubious idea that might have the beneficial effect of prompting college admissions officers to think of better ideas for broadening their pool of applicants. The idea is to add to the scores of some test-takers an “environmental context” bonus. Strangely, board president David Coleman told the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger that this is not, as the media has named it, an “adversity index.” But it is: It purports to measure 15 factors – e.g., poverty or food stamp eligibility, crime rates, disorderly schools, broken families, families with education deficits, etc. – where these test-takers are situated. Coleman more convincingly says to The New York Times: “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given.”
Perhaps the board’s evident discomfort with the label “adversity score” is because their more benign-sounding “environmental context” gives a social-science patina to the obverse of a category, and political accusation, currently in vogue, that of “privilege.” By whatever name, however, the SAT’s new metric is another step down the path of identity politics, assigning applicants to groups and categories, and another step away from evaluating individuals individually. But if the adversity metric becomes a substitute for schools emphasizing race, this will be an improvement on explicit racial categories that become implicit quotas.
The SAT was created partly to solve the problem of inequitable standards in college admissions. They too often rewarded nonacademic attributes – e.g., “legacies,” the children of alumni. And they facilitated the intergenerational transmission of inherited privileges. Most importantly, they were used to disfavor certain groups, particularly Jews.