Coming Soon to Your SAT Score: A “Disadvantage” Index

Coming Soon to Your SAT Score: A “Disadvantage” Index

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The College Board is receiving a mixed response to adding what’s been dubbed an “adversity score” to the SAT.

In mid-May, the company announced that it will be making an “Environmental Context Dashboard” (ECD) available to colleges alongside its SAT score reports.

The ECD compares students’ SAT scores to those of other students at their high school and assigns each student an “Overall Disadvantage Level” score between 1, least disadvantaged, and 100, most disadvantaged.

Thirty-one factors related to a student’s school and neighborhood inform the disadvantage level score, including median family income, poverty rate, percentage of adults with a college degree, unemployment rate and crime rate.

For now at least, the ECD will only be visible to college admission officers; students cannot see their own ECD. The score also doesn’t account for the student’s individual characteristics or life experience, which is in part why the College Board rejects the term “adversity score” to describe the index.  

“Selective college admissions officers already do these kinds of things but in an informal, ad hoc way,” Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, told YR Media. “This gives a way for that to be done in a more standardized way so that it really accounts for the relationship between various forms of adversity and student performance. So I was enthusiastic about it when I first heard about it.”

“It’s about efficiency,” said David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Colleges have access to a lot of the information that goes into the score, but they have a short window to review applications.”

The College Board has faced heavy criticism over the years for the SAT test, which many claim gives an unfair advantage to wealthy and white students.

For 2016 high school graduates, the average SAT score was 1230 out of 1600 for those with a household income of above $200,000. It was 970 for those with a household income of less than $20,000.

For years, the College Board has presented SAT scores by themselves, letting colleges make determinations about students’ backgrounds. The ECD is changing that.

“The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” said College Board President David Coleman in an e-mail statement provided to YR Media.

The College Board piloted the ECD program this past school year at 50 colleges, including Yale, Florida State University and Trinity. This coming academic year, more than 150 colleges will receive the ECD attached to student score reports.

Jerome White, who directs media relations and external communications at the College Board, said the company found students with higher disadvantage level scores were more likely to be admitted at these schools this past year when admissions officers had ECD information than in previous years.

He also claimed admissions officers found the ECD particularly helpful when evaluating applicants from schools they were unfamiliar with.

Despite these results, the ECD has faced criticism.

Some have claimed that it will encourage gentrification, as wealthy families move to poorer areas to beat the system.

Others have suggested the current ECD cannot accurately assess a student’s disadvantage level because it doesn’t include race.

“My inclination is that I would prefer [the ECD] included race,” Polikoff said. “We know that systemic racism and structural forms of racism go well beyond just socioeconomic status. That suggests to me that race is still a highly salient factor that should play a role.”

Another concern still is that the score may unfairly penalize low-income students living in wealthy areas.

“In the 70s, they really clustered low-income families in one area,” Hawkins said. “Now, the trend is to distribute families more evenly throughout a locality. If you’re in a place like Arlington, Virginia, low-income housing is being built among some of the higher-priced dwellings in this county.”

The College Board is adding the ECD to the SAT at a time when some are questioning the worth of the test and an increasing number of colleges are making it an optional component of the application.

Hawkins expects this trend to continue, even with the ECD in place.

“By no means does this new measure solve all of the challenges we have with standardized testing in this country, and we’re still on a historical arc toward more colleges dropping standardized admissions tests as a requirement,” he said.

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