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Coming soon to the SAT: An ‘adversity score’ offering a snapshot of challenges students face


When students send colleges their SAT scores in coming years, the admissions office might also get another number that rates the level of adversity applicants typically face — or privilege they enjoy — based on crime and poverty data and other demographic information about neighborhoods and high schools.

The “overall disadvantage level,” known in admission circles as the “adversity score,” will be a single number from 1 to 100. With 50 set as the average, under a formula established by the College Board, higher scores will indicate higher adversity. Colleges that use it will see the number on a template called an “environmental context dashboard,” which also includes data on Advanced Placement participation and SAT scores at the applicant’s high school.

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that owns the SAT, is developing the program as its flagship test faces significant skepticism over breaches in test security and the value of the scores.

The adversity score, which officials described Thursday, will focus on social and economic factors associated with a student’s school and neighborhood, such as median family income, crime reports, housing circumstances, college attendance rates and parental education, according to the College Board. The formula does not consider race, the College Board said, or individual data about a student’s family or financial circumstances.

The idea is to give admissions officers a deeper framework for considering SAT scores than the information high schools typically provide. A score of 1400, out of a maximum 1600, might look more impressive coming from a student with a higher adversity score compared with a peer who comes from relative privilege.

“The insight is in the judgment of the admissions office: ‘Wow, this score, given this context, that’s something I want to see,’ " said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board.

Charles A. Deacon, the veteran dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown University, said he was skeptical about the value of the score.

“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.”

Admission testing, always controversial, is drawing fresh scrutiny this year. Federal investigators recently uncovered a cheating and bribery scandal that includes sensational allegations of wealthy parents buying fraudulent SAT or ACT scores for their children. A movement to establish test-optional admissions among colleges has gained steam as critics have asked why grades are not a good enough indicator of academic potential.

But testing is an enduring ritual in competitive college admissions.

Fifty colleges and universities tested the dashboard in the most recent admissions cycle. The College Board said Thursday it plans to expand the program in the coming year and make it broadly available starting in 2020. Coleman has promoted the dashboard in recent months. The Wall Street Journal reported new details on the initiative Thursday.

For decades, critics of standardized testing have pointed out correlations between SAT scores and family income. More affluent students tend to score higher on the admission test.

Critics say high school grades are a stronger measure of potential, an argument that has led a growing number of colleges to stop requiring applicants to submit scores from the SAT or the rival ACT admission test. Among the latest are Indiana State University and the University of New Hampshire.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of the College Board, said the adversity score is a ploy to defend the SAT against “well-documented critiques” of the harm caused by relying too much on admission tests.

“Test-makers long claimed that their products were a ‘common yardstick’ for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools,” Schaeffer said in a statement. “This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of ‘accumulated advantage’ which should not be used without an understanding of a student’s community and family background.”

A large majority of the most selective colleges and universities, public and private, continue to require admission test scores.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, said he likes the idea of the dashboard and plans soon to use it. Duke is one of the most competitive schools in the country, and it requires applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score.

“Everyone familiar with the college admissions process understands that it’s not a level playing field,” Guttentag said. “We’re always trying to understand each applicant’s context a little better, and I think this tool will be a positive step in that direction.”

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, which has used preliminary versions of the dashboard for two years, said the information gives admission officers a consistent and standardized snapshot of high schools around the country. “A very helpful innovation,” he said.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said the dashboard is drawing praise from some admission officers. The main benefit of the adversity score, he said, "seems to be it condenses a lot of information into a very concentrated measure.”

But some were cautious.

“Before we make a decision on if and how this might be used, we will need to hear more about the specifics and details,” said Greg Roberts, dean of undergraduate admission at the University of Virginia. "We are pleased that the College Board is offering ideas and tools designed to try to level the college admission playing field.”

Adam Sapp, director of admissions at Pomona College, said the dashboard has worked well for that school in its pilot phase as another piece of their review. It has worked particularly well for students in public high schools and those who go to high school in their own communities, he said. It doesn’t work as well for, say, a low-income student on scholarship at a New England boarding school, or for international students.

“I look forward to the improvements that I know will be made over the next few years," he said. “It’s really important that we get this right.”