The College Board’s SAT adversity score: is there value?

As the debate on race and class in college admissions continues, The College Board, a non-profit group that administers the SAT, has decided to implement an “Environmental Context Dashboard” also known as “The Adversity Score”.  This new addition to the SAT measures factors concerning crime rate and poverty levels of an applicant’s neighbourhood to understand their “resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less”. 

While many see these changes as a response to the recent scandal in University admissions, where parents sometimes paid for their children to have others take the SAT on their behalf, The College Board has been testing an “adversity index” for several years.  The system has now been tested by 50 colleges and universities, and will expand to 150 later this year. The current timeline is to have the new adversity scores available to all colleges by 2020. 

What is the “Adversity Score”? 

The adversity score is not meant to tell admissions teams about an individual applicant, but about the environment the applicant comes from. The adversity score looks at all the economic factors associated with an applicant’s school and neighborhood. This includes: median family income, crime reports, housing circumstances, college attendance rates, and parental education. The adversity score does not currently incorporate race or an applicant’s personal or family financial situation.

How the adversity score is used and presented 

When an applicant signs on to take the SAT, they are asked to enter information about where they live and which high school they attend. The College board then uses this to create an adversity index score based on: high school, neighborhood, and family environment. It’s important to mention that family environment is not based on the individual applicant, but neighborhood statistics. These family environment figures look at the education level of parents, single family home percentages, and other factors based on neighborhood averages, not self-reported data from the applicant. 

When an applicant’s SAT score is reviewed by an admissions team, the adversity score is also included. At that point, how the information is used is up to the individual admissions teams, if they choose to use the data at all. After the trial run, many of the participating institutions said the data was helpful as a piece of the decision making process. 

Sample adversity score given to admissions team distributed by The College Board

The key issue still remains though. While the data may be helpful, is it something that will add significant value to the admissions process?

Speaking to the Washington Post, Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown University, raised a critical point on the value of this data. 

“We have so much personal data on all of our applicants that we don’t feel the need for a tool like this,” Deacon said. “In this era of ‘data analytics’ I guess this is one that could be helpful, but to be honest I still see college admissions as ‘an art, not a science’ so I’m prone to resist quantifying things too much.”

Issues with the adversity score

In terms of the practical issues with the score, there are two major concerns. Firstly, test takers are not shown the adversity score for their area when taking the SAT. So, an applicant may incorrectly assume they have more or less of an advantage based on their neighbourhood. 

The second, and arguably more important concern for admissions teams, is that the adversity score is determined using The College Board’s own data and takes into account an applicant’s possible disadvantages, not their actual situation or social and economic background. The score is more a reflection of how an applicant’s location is perceived, as opposed to an accurate data point on their unique situation and skill set. 

Michael T. Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University, writing in Forbes, said “At a time when standardized testing is under increased scrutiny and is even being discontinued or minimized as an admission tool by hundreds of colleges, one must wonder whether adversity scores are primarily an attempt to protect the SAT’s market or to promote social mobility.”

This quote sums up many of the issues presented with the adversity score. Is it actually a valuable tool that will help level the playing field of standardized testing? Or, is it a marketing ploy to combat institutions seeing less value in standardized testing. 

Next Steps

While there are a number of potential problems that may arise with the introduction of an adversity score, the intervention aims to tackle a critical issue that is affecting our education system – students from lower SES backgrounds tend to underperform compared to their higher SES peers. If academic performance essentially becomes an indicator of SES, then we may end up potentially widening the wealth disparity that continues to persist in society.

Hopefully, with more time and more data, The College Board will make continuous refinements to their adversity score to better reflect the actual circumstances of a student. It is incredibly hard to apply population-level metrics to a specific individual, but the effort should be appreciated, as it indicates that this is an area of concern that needs to be taken seriously.

For more information, please see Understanding SAT Scores: 16 Frequently Asked Questions.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash