If you happen to be wondering what’s on tap for America’s next pity party, look no further than the Facebook video entitled “If someone doesn't understand privilege, show them this.” This four-minute tear-jerker has been viewed a staggering 112 million times. It captures the Privilege Walk, an exercise currently in vogue with social justice activists who pose a series of questions to a group of people who initially stand in a single line, hand in hand.
Each question requires each participant to take a step forward or backward, depending on their answer, to prove her or his privilege or disenfranchisement. For example: “If you can find Bandaids at mainstream stores designed to blend in with or match your skin tone, take one step forward.” Yep, if you can find Tru-Colour bandages at your local pharmacy, you’re privileged! Cue the violins for the rest of us poor souls with ill-matched wound coverings that leave us melanin challenged.
Our country is gripped by grievance, with factions competing for which is most victimized by some oppressive structural barrier. Nowhere is this more evident than college admissions, widely perceived to be rigged in favor of privileged kids who receive special treatment, and stacked against young people who have faced great adversity not of their own making.
Amidst this backdrop, the major media recently reported that the College Board has created a new “demographic handicap” for colleges to “level the socioeconomic field” in admissions decisions. The College Board now reportedly plans to assign students individual “Adversity Scores” to accompany their SAT scores, to be based on fifteen social and economic factors related to students’ neighborhoods, homes, and high schools.
The “Adversity Score” has been panned as a “bogus [effort]...to rank students on a… pseudoscientific index of oppression,” a “backdoor to racial quotas,” and an invitation to “a new quest for victimhood.” I understand this line of criticism. I run a network of public charter schools that educates almost 100 percent Hispanic and black students in the heart of tough low-income communities in New York City. Young people living there are pummeled daily with signals that their race, economic status, or gender should cause them to expect to be marginalized and victimized by systemic discrimination. Adults in their lives are inundated with this message, too, which often leads to the kind of soft bigotry of low expectations for children that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The last thing our kids need is a new set of codified grievance categories to compete for who is worse off in the Oppression Olympics.
Such challenges to the Adversity Score would be justified if true. I believed them myself. Yet it turns out that much of the initial reporting was inaccurate, wrongly implying that “adversity” would somehow alter a kid’s SAT score.
In fact, the College Board is not assigning individual Adversity Scores, nor is the student’s SAT score affected. Instead, starting two years before the recent headlines and the Varsity Blues scandal, College Board president David Coleman piloted a new effort to help colleges “find unseen talent,” by creating an Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) to supplement an individual student’s specific SAT score with additional aggregate, non-specific information about that student’s school and neighborhood environments. The additional information includes Census data related to income, housing, educational attainment, likelihood of being a victim of a crime, and most importantly, family structure.
According to Stefanie Sanford, the College Board’s Chief of Global Policy & External Relations, “The data elements that underlie the measures of environmental disadvantage in the ECD draw on a research base that spans many disciplines (sociology, psychology, education, economics, etc.) that share the common goal of understanding how childhood environments impact educational trajectories and later life outcomes.”
For example, in the landmark Land of Opportunity research that studied intergenerational mobility among more than 40 million children and their parents, Harvard’s Raj Chetty and team declared that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.” Thus, College Board’s inclusion of family structure in the ECD, most notably the percentage of families in a student’s neighborhood that are single-parent families and with children in poverty, as a way to illuminate its dominant role in influencing student outcomes, is a monumental step forward.
In the Privilege Walk video, the first two directives are: “Take two steps forward if both of your parents are still married. Take two steps forward if you grew up with a father figure in the home.” So even to the most “woke,” family structure and stability matter, and are the best “privilege” by which a child may overcome adversity.
Leaders elsewhere should take note. The College Board has created a potential watershed moment in public education, where nearly always we find deafening silence on the critical role that family structure plays in shaping educational outcomes. I have long advocated the importance of collecting student achievement data by family structure, as robotically as we currently do by race, class, gender, etc. Disaggregating achievement data in this manner may well show that family structure is a far more reliable determinant of a range of student outcomes (e.g., school readiness, attendance, behavior, test scores, graduation, etc), and could point toward a whole set of different interventions whereby kids’ outcomes can be brightened. One hopes that those in charge of NCES, the National Assessment, the Data Quality Campaign, the CCSSO and other key data-monitoring-and-analyzing entities will take note.
Despite its stormy rollout, the Environmental Context Dashboard holds the promise to provide colleges with additional information that would warrant a second look at a given student who demonstrated resourcefulness in the face of environmental challenges. But the ECD’s true value may one day be measured not only for the unique elements it includes (e.g., density of single -arent families in the neighborhood), but also what it excludes. By omitting the “usual suspects” such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., the College Board’s ECD may even chip away at the noxious notion that being black or a woman or gay makes you inherently disadvantaged and thus a fit object of lower expectations.
It would be naive not to acknowledge that youngsters attending my schools, however well they do academically, will graduate into a world where factors linked to race, class, or gender will erect big challenges. Yet there’s a duality, for the very same factors will assist our students to enter a world that offers extraordinary opportunities and possibilities.
The question is, beyond academic preparation, what will determine whether they succumb to challenge or thrive on opportunity? Much of the answer rests on the ability of the adults in their lives to ensure that they don’t adopt a victim ideology or suffer from learned helplessness. They must know to expect adversity in many forms. Life is unfair. But we must also help them understand that their pathway to power is to develop the personal agency—the ability to control their own destiny despite disadvantage—to make life decisions that give them the greatest likelihood of success.
In this way, the ECD can be a tool, not to reward a student for claiming victimhood in the face of adversity, but to help our institutions better recognize those young people who have demonstrated their ability to overcome it.
A version of this essay was first published by City Journal.