The College Board, who administers many of the test used in college admission standardized tests, is using 15 criteria such as single parenthood, income, crime rates, availability of AP courses etc to provide a context for the scores; it is like a golf handicap.
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SAT adversity score: the road to perdition?

This morning, I woke to a Facebook post about the SAT “adversity score” and expected to be writing one type of blog; in fact, I am surprised that I am largely supportive of their initiative in principle.

The College Board, who administers many of the test used in college admission standardized tests, is using 15 criteria such as single parenthood, income, crime rates, availability of AP courses etc to provide a context for the scores; it is like a golf handicap. The reason I am pleasantly surprised is they didn’t use race or ethnicity. 

I am of the belief that race is not a scientifically valid construct. We can all interbreed and our abilities across a wide variety of skills and attributes overlap to the extent that it is a trivial factor compared to hard work, practice, and discipline. If you want to read a scathing rebuke of this Adversity Score then read today’s NYT op-ed by author Thomas Williams

In the wake of the recent college admission scandals and the lawsuit against Harvard College for alleged racial engineering, there is a perceived need for a fig leaf and a tool for handicapping applicants according to this disadvantaged score. It seems legit. But is it going to prove a road to perdition, mediocrity, and idiocracy?

I would like to share the story of my father, who gained admission to the top colleges, Yonsei and Seoul National, many years ago. Since everyone in Korea is Korean and there was no wonderful social engineering of the College Board to normalize his scores, he just had to perform. He grew up without a mother, without the money to attend high school, and studied from books, by himself, to do well on his nationwide entrance exams. 

In East Asian culture, the meritocracy of the Confucian system meant that the system was totally blinded. In other words, you couldn’t say “my nephew is dyslexic and needs more time” or “she’s just not a good test taker” or “he was socially disadvantaged.” If you were wealthy and aristocratic, there were probably other means to buy your way into elite colleges as there always has been in the US as well. But the majority of your life would be based on how well you tested against your peers on a single day. Results would determine your quality of education, reputation, opportunity, and perhaps your entire future. 

I explain this to those who wonder why children of Asian immigrants do so well on standardized tests; they come from cultures where your adversity score, backstory, and disabilities meant nothing compared to your performance.  Ignoring the fact that legal immigrants by nature are ambitious and motivated, college admissions in their home countries were the great equalizer and gateway to social advancement no matter what the background. It evolved like that because like it or not, test performance was a robust measure of many desirable features such as intellect, delayed gratification, dedication, and resilience.

I am glad to say that in the United States, as it should be in the rest of the world, success depends not only on test taking but rather other factors such as resilience, emotional intelligence, social skills, and creativity. This remains the most socially mobile, least racist, and least classist country in the world. While children of actors who paid to cheat the system may be correct in assuming that their kids’ lives might be easier with a fancy degree, there are many paths to achievement in this country versus some of the Asian countries where not getting into a top school will have much greater repercussions.

This brings us to the question of merit. I was reminded of the dangers of handicapping when I played golf two days ago. It has been four years since I last struck a ball yet one memory was triggered by playing a hole: during a member-member tournament my partner and I were finishing the 9th hole with a team whose handicap allowed them to score a 27 – that is statistically impossible unless the handicaps are bogus. Every hole was a 3! And when the brilliant 40 foot putt rolled in, I was told by my competitor that if I had any questions about the legitimacy of the scores, I should take it up with the director of the handicap committee (who happened to be the man who rolled in the putt).

I have no trouble with creating an adversity score based on the criteria that the college board has created. Yet there is something to be said for a high non-handicapped score despite adversity (or more likely because of it). My father took his disadvantages and turned them into a strength. I don’t believe that tutors, teachers, and comfort necessarily translate into performance. Like hitting a golf ball the fewest times in 18 holes, it takes discipline, dedication, and focus.

I close with the strange case of politics in the age of Trump. It has always been the case that people with talent were advantaged in the immigration process. I think this is okay but today he faced criticism from the news personalities. To encourage unskilled and uneducated workers to come illegally is to betray those who apply and wait and will ultimately drive the quality of life down for all Americans.

Our country is not boundless with resources yet so many were drawn here because there is so much more opportunity. If you have ever taken a cab in NYC, you will find a very high rate of people with advanced degrees who would have been the best and brightest in their country but nevertheless chose to gamble on the American dream.

So what is the point of this blog? Like it or not, performance matters. I don’t like identity politics and “diversity” because it is based on false racial criteria. An adversity score, I can understand and support because it is evidence based. But the larger question of how our elite educational system is becoming a politicized and frivolous virtue signaling tool for social engineering is concerning. The elite institutions now promulgate politics over free thought, and sanctioned opinions over free speech.

If I had my way, I would reimagine education away from the disastrous Common Core and standardized testing. Kids are all born geniuses and they deserve to have their talents nurtured as proven by Bella, the 4yo who is fluent in seven languages.

The American educational system, especially in the disadvantaged setting, teaches obedience and fosters insecurity and conflict. Like some European nations, high schools should track kids that want to learn trade skills instead of go to a liberal arts college. And this recent Tweet on Algebra 2 is on point:

As discussed in this article on education in Late Antiquity, grade school kids used to study the trivium, then at junior high school they would study the quadrivium.

“The trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium consists of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. Together, Dr. Lehman says they lead students to see a “unified idea of reality.”

This would leave high schoolers to pursue wisdom (aka philosophy) and leave them able to function as free and rational humans ready to live is a complex and ambiguous world.

Just as advancing a few disadvantaged students to elite colleges is a weak albeit well-intentioned gesture of redress, the more important challenge is providing all students with the safe, nurturing, and less structured environment to learn according to their own pace, talents, and ambitions.

If the goal is to make everyone obedient, non-critical, and cutthroat, then our educational system is the finest in the world. If the goal is to encourage minds that can read, write, and perform on par with other developed countries, then we are objectively failing and this latest push by the College Board may send us further down the path to decline.

I refer you to this only slightly hyperbolized story by The Onion to bring the point home.

Without any intended racism, classism, elitism, or ableism, I say to you that we as a nation should be free to pick the best and brightest immigrants, not just the huddled masses who are ushered in to game the asylum laws. And I ask you if the next time you need a pilot, structural engineer, or surgeon, do you really feel better knowing they were part of an “adversity” outreach program in college and graduate studies?

All things being equal, which of course they never will be, I would much rather choose the golfer who scores without a handicap and I would rather take the student who ignored adversity and overcame poverty, dyslexia, and whatever other “ism” to excel by standardized measures.


From 40,000 feet, I want to relate to you a story of how damaging creating a victim story can be. I had a very good friend and roommate in college who studied hard, was conscientious, and intelligent. His father was a corporate lawyer and he attended the best prep school. My friend graduated Phi Beta Kappa and became a successful lawyer as well. 

In contradistinction, his older brother, who presumably was raised with the same advantages, did not achieve these lofty goals and was actually in therapy to treat his resentment of his parents for being “too supportive” and unconditionally loving. It seems that his own high self-esteem was an impediment to his life success according to his self-serving victim story.

I am loathe to make sweeping generalizations but I will do so anyway. In Asia, where single child households are common, the level of self-esteem has caused an inversion in the social fabric of Confucianism with its traditional reverence of the parents known as “filial piety”. As in the US, children are being raised with a higher sense of entitlement, lower resilience, and was told by a Professor at Stanford (which I can corroborate from 20+ years of admissions interviewing for Harvard) that the application resumes are largely curated by professionals from an early age.

Unlike some of my classmates of the class of 1989, I never felt “the imposter syndrome” that some of my classmates confess. I attended the finest prep school West of the Rockies, was top 10% in my class, and did fairly well on standardized tests. I was accepted because of my diverse and altruistic ideas put forth on my self-composed essays and on the strength of my recommendations.  In school, I did not struggle to get adequate grades. I say this not to boast but to place it into contradistinction to a story I heard from a doctor I met a few years back. 

This gentleman, who was sad because his son was in drug rehab, said that he regretted sending his child to Harvard. The student struggled with academics, became dependent on Adderal, marijuana, and alcohol to get up and down, and was now at risk of not graduating. The academic rigors of his preparation and his personal development were not conducive to success and the father felt he would have done better at another institution. I hope the young man got his degree but being a “diversity” candidate, in his own father’s estimation, was not the path of maximum joy. 

Another of my dorm mates was recruited from in disadvantaged school to play football and he felt so alienated that he was caught sabotaging his life by robbing liquor stores. He didn’t do it for the money; I believe he wanted to get caught and find a way out of the Ivory Tower.

The point is that while the vast majority of students don’t get addicted to drugs and become felons, the difficult transition to college is not only about academics but also about social integration. Not everyone integrates well at an elite college and attempts by administrators to create a social engineering project do little to remedy the underlying problems of that transition. As a society, we should level the playing field not by handing out a few “golden tickets” to a single Charlie but rather by making chocolate a fundamental right. Any by “chocolate” I mean not just high quality education but freedom from wage slavery, semi-coerced conscription into unjust wars, police brutality, gang violence, family disruption, the prison-industrial complex, and last, but not least, damaging media and cultural indoctrination about victimhood and the institutionalized hostility which they face.

“I believe this trend does more harm than good… Being accepted into a college is unlikely to repair 18 years of disadvantages. How can we help these kids when they are younger so they are better prepared for college?” —Matthew Peters

Yes, America was once a nation of open “White Supremacy”. East Asians were legally forbidden from immigrating for 100 years after being used as slaves who were murdered by poor Americans out of resentment for taking lower wages. There are multiple examples of other Chinese immigrant massacres. Bringing in unskilled laborers has always been bad for American workers and good for American capitalists. But excluding immigration on the basis of race seems antithetical to the spirit of America and counterproductive.

It is not the race that determines success in academics, it is the culture and personality. If you want to remedy racial disparities in high paying professions, where is the outreach to Asian kids who can’t dribble and shoot? At least in the NBA, one can find objective evidence that we are disadvantaged with regard to height and athleticism!

Some people find her disingenuous, but I hear truth in the words of Candace Owens, who was banned from Facebook for posting about the dangers of victim culture and the real threat of family disruption in the African-American community:

Candace Owens, communications director at Turning Point USA, tweeted Friday morning that Facebook suspended her personal account over a post that the social media company said violated its ” Community Standards.”

“Dear @DonaldTrump, 

“My @facebook page has been suspended for 7 days for posting that white supremacy is not a threat to black America, as much as father absence and & liberal policies that incentivize it, are.

“I am censored for posting the poverty rates in fatherless homes,” she wrote on Twitter.

My concern is that the disintegration of American culture by weaponized identity politics in academia and the cultural discourse takes our eyes off the ultimate prize that MLK Jr. was seeking: a nation where we would be judged on the content of our character and where poverty is seen as the true divider and enemy of us all. In the words of the prophet Bob Marley, “One love, one heart; let’s get together and feel alright.” 

2 thoughts on “SAT adversity score: the road to perdition?”

  1. Armando Alizo

    This is totally racist. Here’s the clear message: Racial discrimination is necessary as long as it’s biased against White and Asians in favor of Blacks and Hispanics.

    1. Actual race is not used as a criterion at all by the Adversity Score. One could argue that the criteria are meant to capture ethnicity but I think the criteria used are valid and would apply to all ethnicities. If you are a student of Asian descent in an inner city school with low income parents, then you would be relatively advantaged.

      Administrators want to create the illusion of diversity and they need this tool to protect them. In fact, whatever your background, elite colleges should be finding sameness of academic excellence. If the children of Eastern European Jews excel in the mid 20th, century, then so be it. If the children of East Asians at the turn of this century excel, that is also an aberration that acculturation eventually erases.

      If we open genius visas to PhDs we would be overwhelmed. If we added a criterion for investment, we still would be overwhelmed. If we added aspiration patriotism, still overwhelmed. My question is if we can have as many educated, affluent, and patriotic wanna be Americans from every corner of the world, wouldn’t that be preferable? Because of the war, my dad wasn’t rich, but he was patriotic and educated so thank goodness for Canada. He actually was not allowed to settle here and worked as a medical sharecropper in various residencies before settling down in Saskatchewan.

      With the proper environment, anyone can overcome their socioeconomic disadvantages. But we have to consider that a person who has so little to lose in their current life that he will bring a false child thousands of miles to the border to seek a loophole in immigration is not the same as a West African electrical engineer who waits 6 years to be approved for entry.

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