Lionel Shriver

Adversity is the new diversity – and it disadvantages everyone

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

To clear up any confusion, American SATs are closer to A-levels than to British primary-school SATs. In my day, this hours-long test of maths and language mastery in the final year of high school was a bullet-sweating business. That score would dictate which colleges we could get into, and we took the results to heart as proof of how smart we were (or not). The exam’s aim, as I understood it, was to objectively assess intellectual aptitude on your basic level playing field. We all took the same test in the same amount of time, regardless of our backgrounds, to earn numerical scores that were comparable across the cohort.

Yet last week we learned from a consultant for the College Board, which administers the test, that in fact ‘the SAT was designed as a way of identifying disadvantaged students to enhance social mobility’, which is news to me. Because, alas, minority students have tended to earn lower SAT scores, this same consultant characterises the exam now as ‘a mechanism for preserving privilege’. So proficiency at solving quadratic equations and familiarity with the definition of ‘balderdash’ isn’t merely meaningless; it’s a kind of cheating.

Uncomfortable with those racial disparities — and especially exasperated that Asians have been acing the test, sometimes with the perfect scores unheard of when I took it — for years American colleges have been steadily reducing the weight they give SAT results in admissions decisions. Keen to remain germane, the College Board has now designed an ‘adversity index’ to accompany the test scores, intended to measure a student’s experience of hardship.

Here’s the drill: students are rated in accordance with 31 factors, using census data on the crappiness of their high school (given the abysmal standards in secondary education across the board, all American high schools are crap, but somehow this algorithm manages to make distinctions) and the crappiness of their neighbourhoods (crime rate, home ownership, property values, prevalence of single-parent households, average adult educational attainment, proportion of households where English isn’t spoken in the home, etc). The resultant adversity index between zero and 100 does not take account of race.

Except it sort of does. The adversity index is a work-around of race to get at race. To many a worthy university’s frustration, several states have banned race-based affirmative action. The American academy is also fearful that a newly conservative, Trump-packed Supreme Court may soon throw out race-based college admissions as unconstitutional (as well it should; I want to get something out of this horror-show presidency besides a slew of gory backstreet abortions in Alabama). Thus the College Board is gearing up for a future in which accepting college applicants primarily because they’re black or Latino is against the law. We can presume that those 31 factors have been researched to double as racial indicators. Adversity is the new diversity.

Yet if we’re to assume for a moment that the College Board really does want to estimate just how shite a student’s life is — to lick a forefinger and gauge the strength of a test-taker’s headwinds — this index is hopelessly crude. By relying on geographical averages, it fails to consider a host of factors that might make it difficult for a kid to do well: alcoholism, domestic violence, drug use or bereavement in the home; crippling shyness or an embarrassing stutter; parental divorce, abuse or neglect. Real adversity comes in many guises, and sometimes it even hits white people.

Like all the other attempts to take a shortcut to social justice by putting a thumb on the scales — to solve unfairness with more unfairness — this advantaging of one group will disadvantage others. As the measurement is intended to do, preference for college applicants with a high adversity index will obviously punish prosperous, high-achieving white students, who might still have worked very hard and might actually have problems, too. But the index could also handicap kids with poor and/or immigrant parents who’ve displayed the very ‘resourcefulness’ it’s meant to reward — who’ve scrimped to finally buy a house or move into a better area, or who have themselves, against the odds, earned degrees.

Successfully overcoming adversity is therefore penalised. I shouldn’t be surprised if a high proportion of immigrant parents who’ve bootstrapped themselves into improved circumstances are East Asian. Keeping infuriatingly diligent Asians from veritably taking over America’s best universities has become a prime directive of their admissions departments — all in the interest of fighting racism. (Hence a lawsuit against Harvard by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, accusing the school of discriminating against Asians. The verdict is announced this summer. Watch this space.)

Americans have grown cynical about the capacity of the affluent to game the college admissions system, especially since more than 50 people were charged recently for getting children into elite schools through bribery and fraud. The adversity index will be one more system to game.

So I picture Felicity Huffman running the census figures through Google to locate the crappiest neighbourhood in South Central LA — with a really juicy crime rate, loads of single parents and no one within miles who speaks English (believe me, that stipulation won’t be hard to meet). Along with all the other desperate housewives in California, she snaps up a hovel and establishes postal residence for her kid’s senior year. She finds a high school with really rubbish graduation rates and terrible teachers, and enrols the kid for one semester. We could think of it as urban camping. After all, this downward mobility is just for the time it takes to get a sky-high adversity score! Meanwhile, to our gentrifiers’ frustration, property values in South Central begin to soar.

Or perhaps we’ll see a new type of entrepreneur, who rents out homes in statistical black spots, in the very crappiest neighbourhoods with the very crappiest schools, and charges wealthy tenants extortionate prices for a coveted address in a shithole. You think that’s far-fetched? Uh-uh. Our friend Felicity just got a four-month prison sentence. American parents will do anything to get their kids into the Ivies.

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