Adversity Does Not Measure Disability

August 12, 2019
Each year, more than 2 million students sit for the SAT. The scores are then reported to colleges and universities and added to the applicant’s file, which also includes transcripts, letters of recommendations and the Common Application. Recently, the College Board, the company that administers the test, announced that it will be adding an adversity rating to its report. The exact details concerning the adversity rating remain unclear. So far, we know the College Board will collect data based on an algorithm that has yet to be shared with the public.

The basic gist of the rating is as follows: on a scale of 1-100, students will be scored based on the adversity they faced in their lives. Scores above 50 will indicate that a student comes from a more disadvantaged neighborhood where there are higher crime and poverty rates. Also included is the relative quality of the student’s high school and the percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch. The intent of the adversity score is to, in some way, level the playing field across the diverse socioeconomic and educational backgrounds of the students. Test scores will not change. Rather, the adversity score is meant to provide context to those scores for admission officers across the country as they try to build diverse student bodies.

It is no accident that this new initiative comes on the heels of one of the most divisive court cases of our time. The legality of current affirmative action policies is being questioned in the case against Harvard University. There is a chance that affirmative action as we know it may be a thing of the past. The College Board, it seems, has placed this adversity rating into action as a way for college admission officers to access data used to create economically and racially diverse classes that are so important for a college campus, in the event that affirmative action policies are deemed illegal.

At first glance, this initiative seems to be fair, just, and maybe even a step in the right direction. It is no secret that the wealthy have an advantage when it comes to standardized testing – they have better educational opportunities, the luxury to pay tutors and, just recently reported, the money to secure extended test-taking time for their children. These discrepancies need to be addressed and the hope is that the adversity ratings will do just that. But once you delve deeper into the implications, many questions surface as to whether the rating actually creates true diversity.

The adversity rating may be able to speak to a student’s socioeconomic situation, but a zip code is clearly not the only determiner of hardships. What about a premature death of a parent, incarceration of a family member, or racism? Also missing from the rating is consideration for the student who faces learning differences such as ASD, mental health issues, or physical illness that impacts his or her academic life. Student hardships cannot be judged by geographic location, nor measured through an algorithm. Environment and circumstances should not be ignored or excluded.

In our Student & Athlete Defense practice, we have seen students struggle with depression and anxiety, as well as addiction issues. Other students have contact with the criminal justice system. All of our clients seek representation to either defend themselves against misconduct allegations or to advocate for a better education plan. After this happens, we rely on our College Consultant to help our clients transition to college. None of these circumstances can ever be included in an algorithm. Sometimes, overcoming mistakes or challenges can be an excellent predictor of resilience. The challenge becomes articulating that difficult-to-quantify “resilience” to a college.

Instead of merely attaching this arbitrary rating, perhaps the College Board should focus on reforming the test so that it is not culturally biased and is more accessible to all students who are required to take it. For this reason, we applaud those schools that have gone “test-optional.” These colleges and universities understand that each student is more than just a number – whether it be his or her GPA, test scores or now, sadly, adversity rating. Until then, we encourage our clients to work with professionals to shape a narrative that will cause an institution to consider a “yes” to admittance.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about KJK’s Student & Athlete Defense practice, please contact Susan Stone at or 216.736.7220, or Kristina Supler at or 216.736.7217.