Today’s breaking news is that the College Board (yes, the same people who bring you the SAT, SAT subject tests and AP exams) now plans to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT. Fifty schools used the score last year as part of a beta test and the College Board says 150 schools will use it in the coming academic year. By the 2020-21 academic year, the College Board anticipates broad adaptation of this new metric.
This news raises many questions. What exactly is the adversity score? How will it be calculated? What factors are considered and how are they weighted? Why is the College Board doing this? How will it be used in admissions decision making?
WHAT IS THE ADVERSITY SCORE?
The stated goal of the adversity score is to gain a better understanding of relative poverty, wealth and opportunity by using the contextual factors—neighborhood, family, and high school—that have been shown to impact a student’s SAT score. There are numerous studies that look at SAT score distributions by household income, parents’ educational attainment, and racial/ethnic background, and disparities are evident. Here are recently published data from the College Board that illustrate the disparities in average SAT score when broken down by these factors:
DOES THE ADVERSITY SCORE HELP ADMISSIONS OFFICERS MAKE BETTER DECISIONS?
The adversity score will be reported as a number derived from several inputs that are grouped into three categories: a student’s family environment, neighborhood environment, and high school environment. Looking closely at these data points, College Board officials believe, will allow admissions officers to better understand the contextual and environmental factors of their applicants.
Much of this is already baked into how selective college admissions work, especially those contextual factors that have to do with a student’s family and school. The adversity score will include biographic and demographic factors that are easily discernible from an admissions application – single parent household, education level of parents, and English as a second language, for instance. Data on the high school environment —curricular rigor, percentage of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch, and AP offerings are easy to discern from the school’s official high school profile or website. It is interesting to note that the College Board includes AP opportunity as part of its adversity index. Does this mean that students at high-performing high schools who have decided to eschew the AP in favor of their own courses will see their adversity score tick up?
Neighborhood environment data—crime rate, poverty rate, housing value, vacancy rate— are not something that admissions officers typically see as they read applications, but our guess is that the most highly selective schools have a well-developed sense of this already, based on extensive outreach efforts over the past decades and school visits made by admissions officers to inner-city high schools across the country.
WHY WAS THIS DEVELOPED?
The real question is, why is the College Board doing this? The College Board notes that admissions officers have asked for a tool like this to help them as they work to increase the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic composition of their student bodies. To many, the prospect of the Supreme Court disallowing race-based affirmative action is a real one. The use of other socioeconomic contextual factors— already a key part of the holistic admissions review process at top colleges—is seen as a way to mitigate the impact of a reversal by the Court. But again, much of this is already evident from the students’ applications.
As applicant pools balloon each year, it’s pretty obvious that the ability to conduct a thoughtful, holistic review is a nice aspirational statement for a college’s website but far from the reality. Applicants are reduced to data points that are fed into an enrollment algorithm and out pops the ideal composition of the admit group. Do we want the process to be even more formulaic? Should admissions officers be predisposed to prefer an application based solely on their adversity score? Would this lead to students from more affluent backgrounds being discriminated against solely because of their zip codes? Why bother with asking for essays and supplements when enrollment management software churns out the right mix of admits? As the recent cheating scandal showed us, there are no guarantees that students and parents will not misrepresent themselves in the admissions process. It would be relatively easy to underreport family income, for instance. There is no effective check for honesty and little motivation for students to be accurate or provide information that will be used against them. Finally, what about students at boarding schools? How will colleges distinguish between scholarship recipients and full-pay students?
It’s hard not to wonder what else might be behind the College Board’s actions. The inclusion of “AP opportunity” seems like an overt ploy to get more high schools to implement the AP curriculum. We know that the College Board has been losing market share to the ACT, so is this a business decision intended to reverse the declining revenue?
We applaud the efforts by admissions offices at colleges to build meaningful diversity in their student bodies. Our communities, our nation, and our world will be better for it. But, is it fair that the College Board, the group that has designed a test that has proven to be unfair and biased towards black and Hispanic students and those from low income backgrounds, is now telling everyone that they have a secret score that somehow mitigates the discrimination? Is it fair that the College Board penalize students who happen to live in affluent areas and attend good schools, especially those schools that don’t offer AP courses?
Increasing numbers of colleges have already decided to eliminate the SAT (and ACT) from their admissions process and report talented and diverse cohorts of students enrolling. Perhaps now is the ideal time for a reboot of the entire process, focused less on pleasing shareholders and more on investing in quality public education for all students that prepares them to be successful students in college and beyond. We’re not convinced the College Board has anything besides its own business interests in mind.