The College Board last week announced a plan to add an “adversity score” to its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Justifying the move, College Board President David Coleman said, “Through its history, the College Board has been focused on finding unseen talent. The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less.”
In 1517, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses disputing indulgences to a door at the University of Wittenberg. His theses dethroned the power of the Catholic Church, ushering in justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers.
An extension of Luther’s tenets, the doctrine of predestination, cut the Church off from temporal power over salvation. With predestination, the Church’s possession of the keys to the Kingdom went from substance to symbolism.
A hymnodist, Luther composed “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” to express the spirit of the Protestant Reformation:
And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
God’s willing “His truth to triumph through us” referred to the turn away from confession, communion, and tithing controlled by an institution, whose inextricable worldliness was inexorably corrupting, to the seeking of one’s predestined “election.”
Calvin hardened the doctrine of predestination, making explicit that some are predestined to damnation. Protestants did not invent virtue signaling, but they sure were good at it. The outward appearance of industry and frugality let others, and most importantly oneself, know of one’s election. A mighty fortress was their industriousness.
Calvinism advanced the theme of election by rendering concrete a reverberation of a Hebraic idea of chosen-ness: Puritans fled Europe to establish a new nation in a land of milk and honey.
In this spirit, John Winthrop, echoing the Gospels, sermonized that his settlement would be “a city upon a hill.” In a nod to virtue signaling, he added, “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Election became a headwater of a powerful political current of Americanism: the chosen-ness of the United States. The Americans would be good, or, as Winthrop said, they “would be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.”
The ethos of working hard, complaining little, and saving produced wealth and achievement. The theme of election forged an American ethos of reform, which began with the American Revolution’s rootedness in the political equality of man by virtue of “Nature and Nature’s God” and culminated in the extrapolation of those principles into the Constitution. Similarly, election grounded the struggle against slavery—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a direct descendant of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Other American reforms reflected the political current of election, including the use of standardized testing. Reformers originally intended standardized testing to break the hold of class on higher education. The embrace of these reforms faltered when immigrant Ashkenazi Jews, whose intellects and a tradition of scholarship led to an unwanted large representation at the Ivies, led to shameful quotas and legacy mandates.
Still, standardized testing did not lose its foothold. The College Entrance Examination Board, which would become the College Board, was formed in 1900. In 1926, the College Board gave birth to the SAT.
The discrimination of the 19th century receded, as schools dropped quotas (although they retained legacy). For much of the second half of the 20th century, the American university became more meritocratic. Women and minorities achieved the access they long deserved, and admissions results could be predicted from grades and test performance. By the end of the 20th century, however, the system began to break down.
As Asians out-performed other groups in grades and test scores, outright discrimination similar to that formerly faced by Jews returned. Schools also began to look to foreign students as a means of improving diversity and as a function of rent-seeking behavior (foreign students pay more). Finally, the U.S. News and World Report rankings drove a trend of manipulation of selectivity by encouraging an excess of applications for the sake of rejecting them. The admissions process for the American university system today is capricious and discriminatory, and, as Operation Varsity Blues discovered, thoroughly vicious.
Enter the College Board. Test scores are no longer a good predictor of admissions—or even of college performance. Test scores have been abandoned by schools as admissions statistics on test scores flaunt the degree of discrimination. To remain relevant, the College Board hopes to adjust scores based on “adversity” so that the discrimination the universities seek is baked into the scores.
With the discrimination baked in, the universities can promote the fiction of meritocracy and obscure the truth: the American university increasingly is just a credentialing service. The SAT will be normed for adversity, which is to say that it will be adjusted for categories of “victimhood.” Everyone at Harvard will once again have similarly high SAT scores adjusted for the claims of adversity they can make. And the eyes of the world will be upon the graduating classes of high schools. Each will try to show others, and most importantly themselves, the indicia of their election, an ostentatious identity as a victim.
A mighty fortress is our victimhood.
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