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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Adam Smith Reveals the Rub in the SAT’s “Adversity Score”

The new ECD score is based on factors such as the student's neighborhood crime levels, poverty, and schools.

Photo by Kishor Kumar on Unsplash

Higher education has changed a lot in the last 300 years, but human nature has not. That’s why Adam Smith, 18th-century moral philosopher and economist, can still teach us a great deal about the new SAT “adversity score.”

The new ECD score is based on factors such as the student’s neighborhood crime levels, poverty, and schools.

The scoring system—technically, the Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD)—was recently unveiled by the College Board, the creator of the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) used by many universities as part of the admissions process. As reported in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the score is based on factors such as the student’s neighborhood crime levels, poverty, and schools. It provides universities a context for the SAT scores of applicants, though the applicants themselves never receive their adversity score.

Educational Inequity

The response to the new scoring system has been volatile. Mark Pulliam, in an essay for Law & Liberty, calls it “redlining in reverse,” referring to the now-banned practice of banks refusing to make loans based on applicants’ zip codes. Ava Woychuk-Mlinac, in an opinion piece for The Hill, argues that to take seriously the College Board’s “solution” to inequality “is to further institutionalize a system that normalizes educational inequity; it is to resign ourselves to not strive for a better solution.”

Yet the College Board is not only advocating this scoring system but also expanding its use after initial testing by 50 colleges and universities. To understand this insistence on the Environmental Context Dashboard, we can turn to Adam Smith’s concept of the “man of system” described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Part VI, section ii, chapter 2).

Smith suggests that the person motivated by humanity and benevolence will establish the best system of laws “that the people can bear.” The “man of system,” on the other hand, is so fixated on the beauty of his ideal that

he goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

Adversity Score

While Smith is discussing legislators and citizens, his argument applies equally to leaders in education and the students they treat as pieces upon a chessboard. By arranging college applicants as they see fit, the College Board and universities are attempting to impose their solutions to inequality. As Adam Smith reminds us, however, individuals are not chess pieces. To treat students as markers in a game to achieve a particular ideal of equality is to deny their individuality. To use them in this way while refusing students access to their own adversity scores is to deny them agency.

Furthermore, as Smith warns,

in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle motion of its own.

What happens when the chess pieces move of their own accord in the direction desired by the leader’s hand? Harmony. But

if they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

The general response to the new adversity scoring system reflects that disorder. The students’ response—will more students decline to take the SAT?—remains to be seen. We can only hope that the College Board and the universities will heed Smith’s warning.

Otherwise, they risk becoming the modern embodiments of Smith’s dangerous “sovereign princes” whose “arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment.” We can only remind our educational leaders that the beauty of an ideal is no proof of its effectiveness or its desirability to the general public.

  • Caroline Breashers is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University.  Previous publications have appeared in EconLib, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Modern Philology, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Aphra Behn Online, Script & Print, The International Journal of Pluralistic Economic Education, and Philological Quarterly. Her book Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.