Will SAT ‘adversity score’ help close higher ed opportunity gap?

Administrators and experts see the value in The College Board’s access efforts but some question transparency

The so-called SAT adversity score should advance the conversation about eliminating the income and racial inequalities that persist around standardized testing and college admissions.

That, says one higher ed access expert, may be the biggest benefit provided by The College Board’s attempt to calculate the impact of factors such as neighborhood crime, high school quality, median family income and local property values on a student’s academic performance.

“It has a lot of red flags,” says Laura Owen, a researcher and director of the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success at American University in Washington, D.C. “But the fact that The College Board is even promoting this as a way to look at closing the opportunity gap, and make college entrance more fair, shows they are trying to do something that will help address systematic injustice and equality.”

One of Owen’s biggest concerns centers on The College Board not planning (as of the time of this writing) to show students their scores—which will land on a scale of 1 to 100, with higher scores indicating more adversity. “That means there’s some secrecy in how these are being calculated,” she says. “It’s going to create a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration.”

SAT adversity score a tool among many others

The College Board introduced the adversity score, which it calls the Environmental Context Dashboard, three years ago. Some 50 colleges and universities have participated in the dashboard pilot program, which will continue to expand in the coming years.

The dashboard considers information about a student’s high school, including senior class size, number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and number of AP exams taken, when calculating the adversity score. It also uses U.S. Census data to measure a range of factors in a student’s neighborhood environment, including unemployment and poverty rates, college-going behavior, percentage of single-parent households, and percentage of adults with high school diplomas.

An example of what the SAT's Environmental Context Dashboard looks like to a college admissions officer.
An example of what the SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard looks like to a college admissions officer.

None of these measures is student-specific, which means all students in the same high school or neighborhood will receive the same rating.

Trinity University in San Antonio—one of the first 15 schools to join the initiative—began using the dashboard as it experienced a surge in applications and selectivity, says Eric Maloof, vice president for enrollment management. “We did not want diversity to be a trade-off or collateral damage as we became more selective.”

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The dashboard allows admissions staff to add context to a student’s high school performance based on data that may not be available in a college application. Trinity counselors are not required to use the dashboard, and just like other data—including an SAT score or a GPA—the adversity score doesn’t mean much by itself, Maloof says.

Still, Trinity has enrolled two of its most diverse and academically accomplished classes in the past two years while its admission staff has used the dashboard. A higher adversity score has also led to a student getting a second look if their application was not accepted during the first review.

“The dashboard does not substitute for firsthand knowledge of an applicant or specific information conveyed by their application,” Maloof says. “It does provide an additional lens to help us identify students who have overcome significant adversity and outperformed their environment.”

Onus on higher ed to boost access

Owen, at American University, says some families will likely try to game the dashboard. They might get their student a higher score, for instance, by moving them to a school with a larger senior class, she says.

Read more: Leveling the higher ed playing field

Also clouding the issue is an increasing number of colleges and universities that no longer require an SAT or ACT score for admission. (The ACT, by the way, has shown no indication it will introduce its own environmental dashboard.)

“I think the onus is on higher ed institutions to look at how they are contributing to, or trying to dismantle, the opportunity gap,” Owen says. “There’s acknowledgment that standardized tests have contributed in many ways to that gap, and I’m not sure this Environmental Context Dashboard is going to have the intended consequences that they’re hoping for.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer. 

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