Standardized Tests, Unstandard Minds: Adversity and the SAT

By Andy Williamson, Owner, Hampton Tutors

In an ideal world, the SAT would not exist.

Colleges would have the time and resources to truly get to know a student before they send them an acceptance letter. However, with the growth of applicants to colleges each year—111,000 students applied to UCLA in 2019—this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The SAT provides a neat, four-digit score that colleges use as a shorthand for academic success.

There are a number of gaping problems with the SAT. Studies have repeatedly shown that it fails to accurately predict undergraduate success and that it has inherent racial and socioeconomic biases.


The College Board (who run the SAT) have recently introduced an Adversity Score as an attempt to level the playing field. This score takes into account a series of socioeconomic indicators based on a student’s address and the high school they attend. These include things like the median household income, probability of being a victim of a crime, and percentage of households on food stamps (for the full list see the College Board site, here).

While the College Board should be commended for addressing the problems the SAT has when it comes to disadvantaged students, there are two main criticisms of the ‘Adversity Score’ approach.

Firstly, in typical SAT style, it reduces every aspect of a student’s experience to a simple number, removing all nuance and context. The College Board seem to think that the solution to their problem is to just produce more data, rather than actually address the underlying concerns and faults in their testing process.

Secondly, the Adversity Score makes no allowances for students with learning differences. For students who have ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, test anxiety, or other Special Educational Needs, the SAT is a (literal) nightmare. The adversity faced by these students gets no mention in the Adversity Score.

The SAT has major problems when it comes to students with learning differences. The accommodations offered for students are, most commonly, 50% extra time. For a student with low working memory or hyperactivity, this may make the problem worse. In general, the SAT is a difficult test for students with any sort of learning difficulty: a standardized test does not fit well with a non-standard brain.

When I work with students on the SAT, a big focus is on efficiency—efficiency of time (how we can answer the questions as quickly as possible, find shortcuts, and avoid getting bogged down), the efficiency of effort (knowing the tricks and predicting the questions) and efficiency of energy (skipping the draining parts of the test to get straight to the point). All of these improve a student’s ability to ‘game’ or ‘hack’ the SAT.

The adversity I see is students excelling at the SAT despite their learning differences. It’s not easy—and hard work is unavoidable—but surely the effort students with learning differences put in to the SAT is worth colleges taking notice? After all, unlike most of the content of the SAT, diligence, determination, and self-mastery are actually key skills for students to learn to be college-ready.  


Andy is leading our Summer SAT Crash Course, designed for students with ADHD.

Find out more and sign up.