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SAT Adversity Score and College Admissions

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?


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:

college admissions adversity score gap infographic
Source: Wall Street Journal/College Board


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.


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.

**Check out what Inside Higher EdPBS News Hour, The Atlantic, Peterson’s and CNN have to say about the SAT’s adversity score.

17 replies on “SAT Adversity Score and College Admissions”

The idea of handicapping students like racehorses to cause them to have an “even” chance is social engineering gone awry. Meerit, no matter why your parents cared enough to educate you should be the only exceptable. Handicapping because a student is Asian in origin? Outrageous!

Admissions officers at top colleges already understand that the playing field is not a level one. Merit — as defined by academic and personal achievement — is already assessed in the context of the available opportunities and admissions officers are always looking for those students who have excelled well beyond the norm for their school/community.

The challenge is that at many of the elite colleges, precious spots in the class are given to athletes and alumni children. In some cases, those spots add up to 30% or more of the incoming class. It’s a pretty safe bet that if top colleges cared less about maintaining these preferences and more about academic merit, you’d see more socioeconomic diversity at top colleges.

What “shareholders”? The College Board is a non-profit.

The simple solution is for colleges to rotate admissions responsibilities among faculty, similar to serving on a jury. Faculty members do it for a year or two and then they pass the baton. Less social engineering, more fairness.

Right — the College Board is a non-profit, albeit one that showed more than $940M in revenue in its latest, publicly available 990. We’d recommend further reading on that topic. The CEO makes millions and they operate more as a hedge fund – see this article for some of the salacious details before clearing the College Board. In our post, “shareholders” was more metaphorical as this action seems driven (at least in part) by concerns of declining market share and relevancy.

We agree rotating faculty on admissions committees (likes Williams) is a good idea. Another solution could be to limit the preference given to athletes and legacies. More than 30% of spots at top colleges are allocated to these groups of students. Curtailing this preference would create space for high-achieving students from all backgrounds.

First, a copy of your tax return and then a DNA test.. This is getting really silly. This will encourage a lot of applicants to tick a racial box that puts their best foot forward. Most Americans are multi-racial to some degree so who is going to police the shenanigans? I suspect the client (college admissions depts) wants a single number so they can screen/filter for certain types of students given the flood of applications in a post-CommonAp world. My experience with my kids is to meet admissions in person.. maybe even twice.. and then apply early admission.. Show the love and thou shall receive the love.

They already do, to their College Scholarship Service. But that may come too late to contaminate the adversity scores.

For the last 25-30 years, colleges have exclusively admitted based on DIVERSITY. Your team has watched as the extremely affluent pool of your applicants (who have stellar gpa’s, high SAT/ACT scores, leadership skills, volunteerism and sports), are not being accepted nowadays (or in the last 5-7 yrs) because they don’t meet the definition of “diversity”. Now the so-called College Board plans on looking at what neighborhood a student lives in or how much their parents make? I hate to tell you folks but MIDDLE CLASS students, who can’t afford these extremely expensive admission services, and have the same academic and extracurricular activities are not getting accepted to the highly selective colleges and IVIES because they are not “diverse” enough. Admissions should be SOLEY based on MERIT, not based a metric that pinpoints where a student lives nor how little or much their parents make nor based on the color of their skin. PERIOD!

Thanks for your thoughtful response. For the students we work with, they have continued to buck the trend and get into top colleges despite their privilege in some cases. That’s largely because of how we approach essays and how to best represent students through a scholarly lens. But we hear you – the real problem is that athletes and legacies (to name two groups out of several “hooked” categories” take up to 30% of each Ivy class so in effect, once you add in racial diversity/other diversity, everyone else (especially middle class kids) gets squeezed out. We have always advocated for fixing the PROCESS rather than putting a finger in the dyke so to speak to stop the flood. Start from the ground up and reform the process rather than simply handing out an unfair test with a numerical score to compensate. The Adversity score is a lame attempt to make it look like the SAT is somehow fair.

But they’ll still take the PSAT (and that questionnaire collects LOTS of data including religion!), and may be required to take SAT subject tests, want to take AP tests, or required to submit data including your tax return on CSS Profile.

And any part of it could leak into this secret Adversity Score. Will they send the Adversity Score with SAT subject test reports? Probably so, because it’s all one unified SAT report with all the student’s scores, so why would they leave it out?

Thank you for an excellent, informative look into possible reasons for this move by the College Board. I agree with you completely that there have to be self-serving reasons behind it and I can only hope that these (very un)standardized tests get a total revamp sooner than later.

How are these tests unfair to blacks and Hispanics but not Asians? Similarly, Asians are not well represented in athletics, but no one thinks the sports are made to be unfair.

I absolutely agree. There is no diversity in college basketball team or football team, because it is all about winning. To extend the argument, why no one looks for diverse in a surgery room or when it is time to design a bridge? At that time everyone wants the best. Admissions should always be based on merit, talent and hard work.

In fact College Board does that too! If you’re applying to a selective private college, you’ll probably have to submit CSS Profile. (FAFSA isn’t enough for them.) And that does require tax returns.

CSS Profile is run by … College Board! We can only hope that what you send to Financial Aid doesn’t leak back to the Admissions Office, or maybe that it does if that helps you get admitted.

College Board is in contact with every college bound student because they put on the PSAT. Students could choose to skip the SAT and take ACT, but they might have to take SAT subject tests, or AP, or supply data to CSS.

College Board is too much of a behemoth to be allowed such secrecy with what they send to colleges about students. Maybe the CSS Profile data you send ends up in your adversity score!

I think the SAT adversity score is a bit unfair to International students, just saying you know. A lot of students don’t get the opportunity to attend good schools and get proper education to ace the SAT and they have dreams of going into top schools. Meanwhile, it seems like something a lot of people would take advantage of and want to lie about.

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