Grit shouldn't be a secret in the college admissions formula

Grit shouldn't be a secret in the college admissions formula

Those College Board folks really are clever. But we’re not sure they can convince us of three inherently contradictory stories at the same time. First, the College Board claims the SAT exam is the best single predictor of a prospective student’s freshman year success. Second, in a nation with vastly different levels of rigor, teaching ability and grading, that the exam is the one common denominator against which schools can evaluate all students. And third, difficult to square with the first two, is that their test scores fail to accurately represent student potential, particularly for communities of color.

It is no wonder then, that the College Board’s latest announcement — they will use a secret formula, census data and some proprietary information to calculate an “adversity score” for every student and report it to colleges along with the kid’s test score — is more head-shaking than mind-boggling. And that is probably because of what much of the country suspects: the College Board’s adversity score is being interpreted as a thinly-disguised proxy for race. And as much of America knows, the issue of race in college admissions is the third rail of an opaque, often-corrupt system.


As the ongoing college admissions bribery scandal has made clear, no one really believes that the college admissions process is 100 percent “fair.” That said, the College Board’s attempt to place students on a spectrum from “privilege” to “hardship” falls far short of its lofty intentions to level the playing field for interpreting SAT scores by putting lower scores into the context of the child’s environment. Instead, the new adversity score is a clever attempt to satisfy the colleges’ objectives: to promote racial diversity without relying solely on race as an admissions criterion.   And let’s be clear: colleges (not kids) are the College Board’s key customers. Unless schools require the standardized test, students won’t take it.

The College Board considers itself a facilitator of access to higher education. It offers fee waivers for low-income students along with some free online test-prep resources. Could we do more to help under-resourced school districts help kids better prepare for high-stakes tests? Sure, but that would cost far more than the new Environmental Context Dashboard. Actually preparing students better academically, is far harder than raising the banner of “equity.”

By constructing a secret formula of 15 factors — including a neighborhood’s crime level and property value — the College Board purports to avoid race in giving schools the tools they seek to admit a diverse class. Importantly, there is wide acceptance along the political spectrum that considering economic diversity in admissions decisions is far less polarizing than using race. The College Board’s new fig leaf, however, is already shedding key cover. For example, how does the formula deal with factors far more consequential than zip code such as the real dynamics in a child’s household or daily life?

The formula has no way of knowing — or dealing with — the pressures in a home created by parents struggling to make ends meet in order to give their child a better zip code and school district. (The child would be “dinged” by this presumed privilege.) Or the challenges a Muslim student in a predominantly Christian community might face every day simply because she wears a hijab. Or the physical and mental obstacles the kid in the wheelchair, or with dyslexia, faces every school day.


Most of us would like to believe that America at its best is a meritocracy with equal opportunity and a level playing field. Yet few people doubt that many, if not most, colleges often define diversity by race and seek to ensure that diversity through preferential admissions criteria. So, substituting a barely-disguised proxy for its current race-based system does little to make the system fairer or less divisive.

There is one other dimension of this new adversity score that is deeply troubling: its secrecy, and the inability of students to know where they stand or challenge its accuracy. We asked several lawyers, “Is this legal?” And although the “star chamber” immediately came to mind, no legal basis for challenging it is immediately apparent. (We said the College Board folks were clever.) But there is little doubt that a court challenge is in the works and that more transparency is essential.

Instead of using the College Board’s adversity score, colleges should really seek out insight about a student’s response to adversity: the kid’s “grit.” Colleges should ask for a recommendation from a high school teacher or administrator that really focuses on overcoming challenges, rather than a rehash of grades, activities and personality. The psychologist Angela Duckworth, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania,  pioneered the concept of grit — which she defines as the “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” — and has created relatively straightforward tools to assess a student’s grit and predict with surprising accuracy how that student will face the challenges of college and beyond. Colleges should use them.

Whether using Duckworth’s criteria will result in more African American or Hispanic students on campus is an open question. But it certainly would send the message that everyone has an equal chance to demonstrate determination and hard work — no matter where they start from. Grit is a far more important and fair way to judge a young person’s response to the challenges of their environment than the statistics of their neighborhood.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen in New York and the co-author of “Getting In.” Scott Farber is the founder of A-List Education, which provides SAT/ACT instruction to students.