What the new SAT Adversity Score really means

The new SAT Adversity Score, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal this past week, comes on the heels of the college admission scandal which hit headlines in mid March. Questions regarding the usefulness and/or fairness of this standardized test have swirled around the SAT and it's non profit organization/creator, the College Board, for well over two decades now. It seems the College Board thinks that by adding an Adversity Score they will successfully even the playing field. But for most of us, the Adversity Score just raises more questions than answers.


The Adversity Score is a number given to each student who takes the SAT based on their school and neighborhood. The score is on a scale of 1-100 with average adversity being at 50. The more hardships, the higher the score. The problem with this structure is that no one can really know or understand a student’s background just by looking at their school.

The College Board said it would implement what it calls the "Environmental Context Dashboard," which would measure factors like the crime rate and poverty levels of a student's neighborhood, to better capture their "resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less." On the dashboard, the score is called “Overall Disadvantage Level.”


According to the College Board's website, the Dashboard has three components:

SAT scores in context: Student’s SAT scores can be seen within the context of the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of SAT scores from the student’s high school (3-year average). The SAT score is the only piece of student-specific information admissions officers see in the Dashboard.

Information on the high school: Including senior class size; percentage of students who meet federal eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price lunch; rurality/urbanicity; and average first-year SAT score of colleges students from that high school attend, the percentage of seniors taking an AP Exam, average number of AP Exams taken, average AP score from that high school, and the number of unique AP Exams administered at that high school (3-year average).

Contextual data on the neighborhood and high school environment: The context data includes two measures—neighborhood and high school environment—calculated using data drawn from a combination of publicly available sources (e.g., NCES and U.S. Census Bureau), and aggregated College Board data.


The College Board declined to say how it calculates the adversity score or weighs the factors that go into it. The data that informs the score comes from public records such as the U.S. Census as well as some sources proprietary to the College Board, Mr. Coleman, the College Board CEO, said.


So the question still remains, how does the College Board really understand a student’s adversity and how does one quantify adversity? The three components listed above seem too generic. There are many students in the San Francisco Bay Area who live in one of the most expensive areas in the country but are in no way living a life of luxury. What about students who received financial aid or scholarships to attend private schools? Then there’s the student at an affluent high school with a severe learning disorder, is this just another check against them as well? And the flip side of the coin begs a discussion on families who live in lower achieving school districts or even rural areas where poverty levels might be high but have their feet firmly planted in the upper middle class.


But once we get past these questions, we have more: What gives the College Board the authority to be collecting and maintaining such data? The second question is why are we okay with this? But the question that most educators are asking is where is the transparency? Students will not know what their Adversity Score is, but colleges will be able to see it. Even high schools won’t have access to this information. In a time when college admissions are so confusing and sometimes even arbitrary, especially at top tier colleges, it seems to me that lawsuits are just waiting to happen.


What many don't realize is that the Environmental Context Dashboard has already been piloted at 50 colleges and universities this past fall and College Board hopes to make it more widely available to another 150 schools next year. According to CNN, Yale University, which has been beta-testing the system, has said that it has nearly doubled the number of "low-income students" by using the score. "This (adversity score) is literally affecting every application we look at," said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions to the Wall Street Journal. "It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class."


Now the concern is whether admission officers at these universities will take the Adversity Score and the ECD in the context it should be taken in and not misuse it.


It’s important to note that many universities are jumping off the standardized test bandwagon and doing away with the SAT all together. In fact, the latest numbers show that over 1000 universities are now officially 'test optional' colleges and don't use SAT/ACT scores when offering admission to students. This list includes over 17 California State Universities and a few popular out of state schools for California students, including Arizona State University, UN Reno and UT Austin.


If colleges and universities don’t have any further information while looking over applications, then this might shed some light on the background of the student. But most universities ask for teacher recommendation letters. Wouldn’t those be better and more personal?


It’s been said time and again that the SAT has many flaws and some might say that this is the College Board’s attempt to ‘fix’ the test by adding more data about the students who are taking the test. The biggest issue might be that no matter which way you slice it, there's really no way to really understand a student's background and his or her hardships unless you take the time to really get to know the student.