America continues to struggle with how to address systemic, generational issues of income and racial inequity. There are two ways to go about the problem. The first is to invest in communities to equalise opportunities . The second is to equalise outcomes . This distinction is important because the first influences inputs into a black box but the second recalibrates outputs from it.
Developing countries like India have chosen the second path through a complex policy of reservations and affirmative action. Do you want more women represented in parliament? Ban men from competing in elections and reserve seats only for women. Do you want more students from a particular tribe to get admitted to colleges? Reserve a quota of seats only for that tribe so that no other students can get those seats.
In a nod to capitalism, and wary of concerns that the Supreme court would find quotas unconstitutional, the US has used its wealth to pursue the former path: try and make opportunities more equal. Many Great Society programmes launched by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s were designed to address poverty so that each child had nearly the same chances to succeed as those from more financially secure families.
This is why in America, K-12 public education is free. Transportation to school and back is free. Poor children are provided nutritious meals in school practically for free, and there is free health insurance. Parents of poor children are provided subsidised housing, energy, free medical care, and welfare checks. Poor families in rural areas get subsidised internet access.
Schools spend billions of dollars to maintain library and computer facilities on campus, all of which are free. Public libraries offer free computer workstations. If children qualify for subsidised lunches in school and wish to take admission tests such as the SAT or ACT, they are exempt from paying test-taking and score-reporting fees.
What about preparing for these admission tests? In 2016, and for the first time in its history, the College Board teamed up with an external provider — the non-profit Khan Academy — as its official partner for test preparation. Now, any student, rich or poor, has access to unlimited, free, official material to prepare for the SAT.
When it is time to get students ready for college, the US Department of Education operates nationwide federal TRIO programmes which identify and provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These provide counselling, summer programmes, research, computer training, and connections to university faculty to help them obtain degrees and careers.
When it’s time for students to apply for college, nearly all colleges are need-blind in their admissions policies, which means that offers of admission go out to students regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Most private colleges guarantee that they will cover the cost of education for families with incomes less than $65,000, including the costs of room and board. Many top universities guarantee that students from middle-income families never have to assume a single dollar of education debt.
By attempting to balance the input side of the equation — and making opportunities as equal as possible in a diverse society — America has made tremendous strides to address the issue of inequity. If a student of whatever colour, race or income level, really wanted to take the SAT and do well in it, he/she could do just that. If a student wanted to attend college, even a prestigious institution, this was possible as long as the student demonstrated merit.
But the College Board strangely felt that all of this progress, over multiple decades, was not enough. There’s a collective sense of guilt in the hallways of the College Board and the most elite colleges and universities. In this narrative, whites and Asian Americans have a leg-up in college admissions because students from these demographic groups post disproportionately high scores on standardised tests, and this can be traced to income superiority and superior social mobility. These privileged families can afford to send children to test preparation centres where students can be crafted and moulded into outstanding test takers. Despite all that America has achieved, this theory holds that minority and poor children are at a nascent disadvantage.
So, rather than continue its outreach efforts, the College Board did something unthinkable this past week. It announced that it would formally provide ‘affirmative-action type’ concessions to such students on the output side of the equation as well — to help equalise outcomes.
New SAT ‘adversity score’
The College Board now plans to assign an ‘adversity score’ on a scale of 1 to 100 to every student who takes the SAT. The score is not related to any SAT test and contains no questions for either the student or his/her family. Instead, it is calculated using data compiled by the US Department of Education and the Census Bureau and includes 31 pieces of macroeconomic information about the student’s high school, such as family structure, housing, and educational attainment of the community. It also considers a neighbourhood measure which takes into account income, family structure, housing, educational attainment, and the likelihood of being the victim of a crime.
The 31 factors are completely arbitrary and not subject to review. No one knows how the College Board assigns the adversity score to a student because the weights assigned to each factor and the algorithm are not publicly known. This means that the scores are not subject to review either. This is by far the most controversial step taken by the College Board, an organisation that has much influence over the lives of nearly 2 million students each year who take the SAT. It is a frontal attack on meritocracy which is at the very foundation of American education.
But we do know from outstanding reporting by the New York Times that the College Board consulted heavily with liberal economists such as Raj Chetty at Harvard who specialises in ‘using big data to understand how we can give children from disadvantaged backgrounds better chances of succeeding.’ Another expert who was consulted is Richard D Kahlenberg, a proponent of class-based affirmative action. Conservative economists who don’t believe in quotas or affirmative action were not consulted.
There is little question that the move is already having an impact. Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, which has already been piloting the College Board’s programme, told the Wall Street Journal last week, “This [adversity score] is literally affecting every application we look at. It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”
But there are critics too. Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University, told the New York Times : “If you’re a really well-educated, higher-income family living in a poor neighbourhood, this measure is going to overstate the disadvantage you face.” Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown, criticised the move as not going far enough because the 31 factors do not consider race. In America, you just can’t win.
All of this brings us to a larger question about why the College Board did any of this at all. It is so quintessentially un-American. It is similar to ‘Tour de France’ organisers providing motorised devices to a few cyclists during the mountain stages of the competition to help address the social and economic ills of the athletes.
The need to add diversity — and to correct what has been historically wrong with certain communities — is so dire in our institutions that Harvard is now facing a lawsuit that it discriminated against Asian students to favour students from other races. The University of Chicago decided to drop, considering all admissions tests so that it can grant admissions to whoever it wants, based on its own evaluation of merit, including adversity.
Chief Justice John Roberts said something simple and elegant in the 2007 Supreme Court case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The College Board knew that including race as one of the 31 adversity factors would immediately invite a court challenge, so it cleverly avoided race altogether. But the net effect is the same. Some students are given bonus points on their SAT scores because of who they are and not because of what they achieved on the test.
Yes, this is America today.