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College Board retreats on plan for single ‘adversity’ rating to go with SAT score


The College Board is dropping a controversial plan to send colleges a single numeric rating of the adversity students faced in their communities as they took an SAT admission test, opting instead to provide separate measures to describe their high schools and neighborhoods.

Last spring, the revealing of plans to develop an “overall disadvantage level” for each SAT taker, on a scale of 1 to 100, prompted an uproar. Many dubbed it an “adversity score.” Critics said it would be vulnerable to manipulation and could unfairly taint how an actual SAT score is perceived. The test itself gauges math and evidence-based reading and writing, with a widely recognized maximum score of 1600. That scoring scale remains the same.

Useful or foolhardy? New ‘adversity rating’ for SAT drives rousing debate.

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that owns the test, said the new figures were meant only to provide more demographic context for admission officers to understand where students are coming from.

On Tuesday, the testing organization rolled out an admissions tool called Landscape that appeared intended to assuage critics.

Gone was the lightning-rod “overall disadvantage” number. “It caused a lot of unnecessary confusion and also wasn’t productive,” David Coleman, the College Board chief executive, said in a telephone interview.

In its place will be two socioeconomic ratings — one for the high school and the other for the neighborhood where the student lives. These numbers also will be on a scale of 1 to 100. Criteria in the ratings will include college attendance patterns, median household income, housing and crime data, educational attainment and the number of single-parent families. The data are drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau, College Board and other sources.

Lower ratings are meant to signify relative privilege within a school or neighborhood, and higher ratings signal that a student faces relative challenges. No personal data or test scores are included in the formula.

The College Board said it plans to make the neighborhood and high school information visible to students and families next year. Previously, it had considered that step but had not committed to it.

Unlike the previous proposal, the College Board will not distill the ratings to a single number. But nothing would prevent a college from doing that arithmetic. “Sure, you can combine any information in an application however you see fit,” Coleman acknowledged.

The Landscape tool will also show average Advanced Placement test participation and results at the high school and how the individual student’s SAT score compares to other scores from the high school. The tool will be auditioned in as many as 150 colleges this year and then made widely available in 2020, the College Board said, at no charge to colleges.

“Colleges do not use Landscape to decide who gets in and who doesn’t,” the College Board said. “It simply helps admissions officers give more students from more places a fair look.”

Nearly 2 million U.S. students in the high school Class of 2018 took the SAT, slightly more than the roughly 1.9 million who took the rival ACT. The ACT has no plans to use any kind of adversity rating.

One college admissions consultant who had criticized the College Board’s previous adversity rating proposal applauded the change.

“This is a significant improvement that eases concerns about the transparency of the process,” said Venkates Swaminathan, who is based in San Francisco. At first glance, he said, it appeared that the information “will provide another useful data point for colleges to understand a student’s performance in context.”

Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside, said the College Board had taken “a good first step” by simplifying its metrics and making them more transparent. Comeaux chairs a board of the UC Academic Senate that oversees admission issues within the UC system. He said Landscape is “just a small mechanism” in an admissions process that historically has favored the privileged.

“You’re trying to find a way to make this more equitable, right?” he said. “Even with this new tool, you still have people that have to interpret that and execute the plan.”

Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor at Georgetown University and former senior official for the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, said the episode showed anew the tensions underlying admission tests.

“The College Board is discovering who they are and where they are,” Carnevale said in an email. “They are the personnel director for America’s race and class elites and their elite colleges. When they step out of that role, they make people and institutions very nervous.”