Just because data are numerical doesn’t mean they’re objective. When they’re tied to different societal outcomes, they’re given meaning and made to tell a story.
A teenager living in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, a high poverty rate, many single-parent households, and high schools that don’t offer advanced classes might be deemed remarkably resilient by the College Board’s measurement, and the adversity index might help her get into an elite school. But the same numbers would mark her as more likely to commit crimes and less deserving of a loan or a reprieve from jail when applied in financial or criminal-justice systems, which source the same public data to make algorithmic decisions about other outcomes. The same numbers mean different things in different contexts. They don’t hold a single, objective truth, but rather provide evidence for a social hypothesis.
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In this case, the hypothesis is that students who did not grow up in privilege relative to their peers have had to work harder, and that extra work should come to bear on the college-admissions process. But the history of the SAT itself shows us that numbers can also be used to enforce power systems. The original Scholastic Aptitude Test was invented in 1926 by Carl Brigham, a Princeton alumnus and avowed eugenicist who created the test to uphold a racial caste system. He advanced this theory of standardized testing as a means of upholding racial purity in his book A Study of American Intelligence. The tests, he wrote, would prove the racial superiority of white Americans and prevent “the continued propagation of defective strains in the present population”—chiefly, the “infiltration of white blood into the Negro.”
Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, was also the modern father of a number of key statistical methods, including correlation and regression. He used his statistical acumen to test and measure the physiological and psychological behaviors of white European men, with the long-term goal of determining which ones were fit to reproduce.
Galton would die tied to his beliefs, but Brigham grew to regret inventing the SAT, writing in 1930 that SAT test scores don’t measure innate ability passed through genes, but are instead “a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant.” That sounds shockingly similar to the stance in favor of the adversity index: that exam scores are inseparable from the external contexts bearing down or lifting up students as they receive their education and take the test.
The point isn’t that algorithms broadly, or the adversity index specifically, are racist—they’re not. But scoring people based on social factors, unlike scoring them based on correct answers to a math test, is a subjective exercise, even though there might be numbers involved.
This holds true across the aims of standardized testing. The original purpose of the SAT was to prove racial superiority, while the index promotes diversity. These are opposite goals, but they exploit the same methodology: using quantitative measurements to create a cohesive logic and enforce a narrative—about students, about neighborhoods, about social order.