SAT adversity score has its critics but some colleges say it’s helping

Leandra Bernstein

May 23, 2019

The SATs have been a right of passage for generations of college-bound Americans. Many adults who have forgotten much of their high school experience have vivid memories of taking the SATs. Many still remember their score, which often influenced their chances of being accepted to their dream school.

The debate over the SATs has raged in the past week since the College Board announced it was considering adding an adversity score to the standardized test.

Some have argued the score will improve diversity and provide more opportunities for qualified but overlooked students, and there is evidence it already has that effect. Others argue the score will not help underprivileged students advance in higher education but it will further erode the already questionable value of the test.

After longstanding criticism that students’ SAT scores are more a reflection of their incomerace and school districts than scholastic aptitude, the College Board began experimenting with a tool that would consider a variety of environmental factors, specifically related to a student’s family, neighborhood and high school. They developed the Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD), which considers 15 indicators of adversity and privilege, from local crime and poverty rates to unemployment, single parent status, educational achievement and access to advanced placement classes.

College admissions departments can use the tool to see an SAT score in the context of the student’s “Overall Disadvantage Level,” a number between one and 100 estimating how much adversity the student faced given the environmental factors. A score of 50 is average. Anything above 50 indicates hardship and anything below indicates privilege.

Students and parents do not know their adversity score and the College Board has not revealed its algorithm to show how much weight it assigns to each factor.

Emma Meshell, correspondent director for Campus Reform, a higher education watchdog organization operated by the Leadership Institute described the new metric is “arbitrary.”

“Really all this does is undermines the authenticity of the SAT, which it’s one purpose is to measure students’ academic readiness for college,” she said.

Already, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have stopped requiring students to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of the application process. “What this seems like is a grasp at relevance for the SAT, trying to stay relevant by bringing in a hot topic like diversity,” Meshell added.

Critics have also argued that there are other ways to capture a student’s background and the level of adversity they faced in life that might not be reflected in where they grew up or the quality of their high school.

The three general categories the College Board considers are a student’s household, neighborhood and high school. “Those factors are already considered,” said Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, an independent college admissions consulting firm. “Those are all on the common application, they’re all over the letters of recommendation and the essay.”

The common application includes questions about where the students were raised, their high school, as well as parents’ occupations and their highest level of education. The essay section has several prompts asking students to explain their background, a time when they overcame a challenge or setback, or an opportunity to discuss a major achievement.

Until relatively recently, the College Board claimed that the SATs were fair and unbiased concerning socioeconomic class and race. “Herein lies a confession that the test is not unbiased because now they’re going to contextualize the score,” Taylor noted.

It has been shown in various studies that SAT scores strongly correlate with income, access to private tutoring and race. The College Board has also had serious issues with security, cheating and failing to provide fair access for students with learning disabilities.

The Environmental Context Dashboard is still being tested. Admissions officers at 50 institutions took part in the pilot program last year and about 15 participated in an earlier rollout in 2017. The program will be expanded to more than 150 colleges starting in the fall and will be fully accessible to all schools by 2020.

Despite the criticism, several schools that participated in the ECD pilot program have offered positive reviews, including admissions staff who appreciated having additional background information that didn’t necessarily come through in students’ test scores, grades, personal essays or letters of recommendation.

Application readers reported that students from higher levels of disadvantage were more likely to be admitted by schools using the ECD, suggesting the adversity score influenced admissions outcomes. Colleges also reported that the tool positively influenced admissions decisions when the staff was less familiar with the applicant’s high school or when students significantly outperformed their peers.

Trinity University, in Texas, is one of the institutions that piloted the dashboard. Eric Maloof, vice president for enrollment management at Trinity told EdSurge that he was interested in the tool because the admissions process had become more selective in recent years.

“Increasing selectivity usually works against diversity,” he said, “and we didn’t want that to happen at Trinity.”

A student’s adversity score was not the only factor influencing admissions decisions, Maloof explained, but looking at an SAT score in context can help schools decide “who is really outperforming their environment.”

Yale University was among the first schools to test the SAT adversity score in its admissions process. Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale said the ECD tool helped admissions officers recognize the contextual background on some students that may have been overlooked. Quinlan told The Wall Street Journal that the adversity score “is literally affecting every application we look at. It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”

Yale is among the most exclusive schools in America with one of the lowest admission rates and the highest SAT and ACT test scores. In 2018, it accepted the most socioeconomically diverse class of students in the university’s history. The graduating class of 2022 had almost twice as many low-income students as the 2013 class and 18% of freshman will be the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college.

At Florida State University, another early adopter of the ECD, assistant vice president for academic affairs, John Barnhill said the tool helped the school boost nonwhite enrollment in the incoming freshman class by 5% to 42%.

Jim McCorkell, the CEO and founder of College Possible, has been working to prepare low-income students to succeed in college for the past 20 years. He acknowledged that while the adversity score is “not a panacea,” it has the potential to benefit low-income students.

“If you have two students with a score of 1,000 and one is from a very wealthy family and one a very poor family, the scores are equal but not really equivalent when it comes to their ability to predict who will do well in college,” McCorkell explained. For low-income students, the disadvantages accumulate, he continued. “To get to that 1,000 you need to overcome a lot.”

Some critics of the adversity score, like Campus Reform, have argued it’s unfair to give “extra-unearned credits” to certain individuals or groups based on factors that are outside of students’ control, like where they live and what their parents earn.

The way the ECD is weighted, students who come from high-income families, whose parents achieved high levels of education or are Asian or white will have to score higher on their SATs to be considered “average,” because the average score among those groups is typically higher. Lower-income students who are Hispanic or black and the first generation to go to college have to score lower to be considered average.

Ultimately, the purpose of the SAT and ACT scores is to help predict college readiness and a student’s probability for success, but determining that accurately requires more than a number.

“Some students have greater opportunity to achieve, and have had more resources dedicated to ensuring they achieve,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. That is why context is so critical.

DePaul has used an internal index for the past 20 years to help admissions consider students’ backgrounds. But Boeckenstedt stressed that no simple index number is a replacement for an admissions officers doing the work of vetting applicants. The adversity score, he continued, “will add only a small bit of context after the admissions officer’s research is complete. It won’t be a lot, but it will likely push a few students over the line into the admissions category.”

The College Board may not have the credibility or the perfect tool to accurately measure adversity and privilege, but it is part of a growing recognition that many Americans continue to have limited access to higher education.

“The goal is to make sure students from all backgrounds get the same chance,” McCorkell said.

There are few gaps in American society as large as the one between educational achievement and income. Students whose families are in the top quarter of income earners are currently five times more likely to earn a four-year degree than students whose parents are in the lower quarter.

At the same time, a college degree is increasingly tied to an individual’s earning potential over a lifetime. The jobs with the highest wage growth and new openings are in areas that typically require applicants with post-secondary education.

“This isn’t just about helping low-income students,” McCorkell explained. “It’s about America living up to its promise as a country where everyone deserves a fair shot to go as far as their talents will take them.”