New SAT Adversity Score Raises Questions

By: Rachel Hess Wachman (Copy Editor)

In an era where those with money will do anything to get ahead, the rich and desperate may have just been handed another tool with which to game the system.

The SAT recently announced the institution of an adversity score called the Environmental Context Dashboard designed to take into account factors such as socioeconomic status, as well as students’ learning and living environments. The adversity score does not account for race, and many argue that the score will be more harmful than beneficial for those whom it was created to help.

“Instead of starting a frank conversation about the consideration of adversity in college admissions, the College Board has selected a measure that obfuscates the relationship between adversity and race. Rather than puncturing the myth of color-blindness, the board has chosen to perpetuate it,” wrote André J. Washington and Daniel Hemel in their Time article “By Omitting Race, the SAT’s New Adversity Score Misrepresents Reality.”

The College Board has tested the Environmental Dashboard Index with fifty schools over the past few years and plans to expand to one hundred fifty colleges in the coming year. “Colleges will be able to access data about the student’s school, including senior class size, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, SAT scores for the previous three years by quartile, and the average freshman SAT score at the colleges attended by graduates of the school,” wrote Jim Jump in his article “Ethical College Admissions: Context and Shortcuts“ from Inside Higher Ed.

“The SAT has been criticized for years because wealthy students earn higher scores, on average, than do those who are middle class, who in turn earn higher scores, on average, than do those who are from low-income families,” said Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed. The goal of the adversity score is to eliminate the advantages that richer students have, to level the playing field so that students’ scores reflect their individual challenges, rather than their families’ wealth.

“I think it’s a really great step in helping address the challenges that many students face, based on socioeconomics,” said Dr. Cathy Collins, SHS library media specialist. “I think it helps equalize the opportunity for all students, which is a great thing.”

“Together, the factors yield a score of between one and a hundred points; scores above fifty points indicate that the student has had to contend with more obstacles than average,” said Jiayang Fan in a New Yorker article.

The SAT is “one piece of a puzzle,” said SHS school counselor Mrs. Jacqueline Kaye. “It’s a piece that is one day or a couple of days in an academic career. It’s hard to say what role it plays when it’s part of the puzzle. For some schools – more and more schools – it’s becoming optional.”

“I believe the College Board is looking to promote access and opportunity for kids who may not have all the resources or have just had different life experiences that might help strengthen their application,” said Kaye. “I think that the hope and the goal is to help students with different circumstances and backgrounds, such as working to help support their families or the death of a parent.”

“The best defense of the College Board’s adversity score is that it is a backdoor way to integrate race into college admissions for schools that are barred by state law from considering race explicitly…. The fact that voters in some states have mandated “color-blind” admissions to public colleges and universities should not lead admissions officers elsewhere to ignore the role of race in applicants’ live,” said Washington and Hemel.

Schools have been looking at race for a long time, according to Kaye, so maybe that’s why it’s not included in the score. “It’s hard to say how it will play out,” she said. “Every college admissions office has a different way of operating… it can depend on how they’re looking to fill the class.”

“Any score removes professional analysis and judgment from a process that should be holistic and humanistic,” said Jump. Admission officers should evaluate every student’s application in the context of his or her background and life experience. The dashboard provides lots of context, and a single score removes that context and substitutes a shortcut. It may be that admission officers don’t have the time or the training to pay attention to context, but that’s a larger issue. Taking shortcuts in reading applications doesn’t make for better decisions if that is in fact what we care about.”

“Racism has informed the story of America since its founding, of course, but to attempt to isolate its significance as a single box on a matrix would fail to grasp the complicated shapes that it takes across broad, interconnected social categories,” said Fan. For too long, having a particular shade of skin has been confused with possessing a predetermined quantity of advantages or disadvantages. Yet the experience of inhabiting that shade can be understood only in the context of its interaction with all the other identity markers of an individual.”

There may be other ways to approach the challenge, according to Washington and Hemel. “Instead of starting a frank conversation about the consideration of adversity in college admissions, the College Board has selected a measure that obfuscates the relationship between adversity and race,” Washington and Hemel wrote. “Rather than puncturing the myth of color-blindness, the board has chosen to perpetuate it”

As well as race, the adversity score raises questions of cheating gaming the system.

“If being enrolled in a below-average high school will boost your scores, what do you think wealthy parents are going to do days before the SAT registration deadline? If an official address in a poor neighborhood will get you a bump, there’s going to be a raft of suspicious and conveniently timed address changes,” wrote Derek Newton in Forbes Magazine. “It’s only a matter of time before highly-resourced, expensive, elite prep schools establish satellites with official addresses in communities with high adversity scores.”

There will always be dishonest people, says Collins. “I think that if [the College Board] is very careful in very careful defining and delineating the criteria in who will benefit, it will help avoid the problem. It’s like a rubric with specific criteria that we’re looking at, so then it becomes difficult for people to game the system.” The information regarding an individual student’s circumstances needs to be verified “in a defined way. It can’t just be filled out on a form,” said Collins.

‘Any student – every human – is more than a sum of numbers,” said Kaye. “There’s a story to be told about every person, which is why I am hopeful that the adversity score can be used in a meaningful way.

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