The private company that produces the Scholastic Assessment Test and other researchers are developing new methods for evaluating college applicants that would formally weigh whether students come from poor families, attended bad schools and other social factors.
The new formulas would give colleges an important new tool for identifying students whose test scores exceed what would be expected of them given the conditions they faced growing up. It could also for the first time provide schools with uniform systems for considering a broad range of societal factors in making admissions decisions, instead of relying on the individual judgments of admissions officers.
For example, under one system being developed by Educational Testing Services (ETS) to be circulated to colleges this fall, students who score at least 200 points higher on their SATs than is typical given their backgrounds would be classified as "strivers."
The new formulas come as colleges search for alternatives to affirmative action, which has been banned in five states and has come under legal and political attack across the nation. Researchers said the systematic consideration of social factors could not produce the same level of racial and ethnic diversity on campuses as affirmative action has, but could lessen what have been sharp drops in minority student enrollments at the best public colleges in the affected states.
"This will get you closer to the current affirmative action program, but it's no substitute for it," said Anthony Carnevale, who has directed research aimed at identifying academic "strivers" for ETS, the private organization that administers the SAT.
Admissions officers at flagship state universities, where affirmative action has been most controversial, have expressed interest in the new approaches as possibly providing ways to get more information that would help identify students likely to succeed at their colleges.
"Admissions officers have done something like this all along. We used to call it, 'adversity overcome.' That was viewed as subjective. . . . I'm fascinated that ETS has found a way to quantify those things," said Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association of College Admissions Officers, based in Alexandria.
Opponents of affirmative action charged that using the new approaches would be unconstitutional if they included race as a factor--an option with the ETS formula and another being developed by a Washington researcher--or were adopted for the purpose of giving certain racial groups an advantage in college admissions.
"This is race norming [of SAT scores] in another guise. I think there will be legal differences with that," said Terrence Pell, senior counsel at the Center for Individual Rights, which successfully challenged affirmative action at the University of Texas and has joined similar lawsuits against the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.
The approach being developed by ETS, details of which were first reported Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, has attracted the most attention because ETS administers the SAT. A similar model has been developed by an Education Department economist as a personal project, and University of Michigan researchers have just started work on another for the American College Testing Program, which produces the ACT college placement test widely used in western states.
For its "strivers" model, ETS identified 14 factors that could identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds and computed the scores that students with those characteristics have historically had on the SAT. Students who score at least 200 points higher on a two-part test with a maximum score of 1,600 are called "strivers," motivated students who have achieved beyond what would be expected, given their circumstances.
"It's a sense of merit based on not just where you are, but how far you had to come to get there," Carnevale said. "We found out there are a lot of people who beat the odds."
The factors taken into account include low family income, limited education of parents, an inner-city high school, speaking English as a second language and going to a school where most students are poor. Whether race--being African American, Hispanic or Native American--is included as a factor is optional.
Carnevale said that the "strivers" study would be released later this fall, and colleges could decide whether to use its findings or come up with a similar approach of their own.
At the University of Washington in Seattle, a few of the same social factors have been used to evaluate applicants in recent years and two others were added this year after a state referendum banned affirmative action, but the enrollment of African Americans and Latinos still fell by between 20 and 35 percent.
"We've already embraced the concept," said Tim Washburn, director of admissions and records. "It's not a replacement [for affirmative action]. It is helpful."
William J. Goggin, a senior economist at the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance at the Education Department, has developed on his own "merit index" that was circulated to 1,000 colleges in May and is to be reviewed by a national committee of admissions counselors this fall.