On Thursday, May 16 the College Board, makers of the SAT, announced a new test feature: the “adversity score” or “Environmental Context Dashboard.” The adversity score assesses the adversity a student has faced based on factors like the student’s neighborhood crime rates, median family income, and family stability. The idea is to provide context to college admissions officers.

“It’s an effort by the College Board to better provide colleges and universities with metrics to assess the effects that a student’s potential adversity may have had on their academic preparation for attending college. So, it is an effort on their part to provide an additional context to admissions officers alongside the traditional SAT academic scores, so that those admissions officers can have a more well-rounded set of tools to help inform them in their admissions decisions,” said Matthew Gazda, Research and Publishing Manager at Peterson’s.

Gazda works to collect college data at Peterson’s, and has sat on higher education boards with institutions including the College Board. He explained that the adversity score itself is an algorithm with a variety of adversity-related inputs ranging from socioeconomics to race and ethnicity. These inputs have been assigned different “weightings” as they apply to the score. This score is then calculated by way of these variables, and is provided to admissions departments alongside a student’s traditional SAT scores.

This initiative has been met with a media firestorm of opinions, and questions about the motives for implementing this new feature.

“[The College Board] is getting pressure and heat for discriminating against a certain subset of zip codes, because those students don’t have the same advantages. The problem now is that this is just a layer to the test that becomes even more complicated,” said Mimi Doe, Founder of TopTier Admissions.

Addressing diversity and creating a diverse class of students is important to colleges and has long been part of the admissions process. However, this is the first time an algorithm and subsequent score has been introduced in an attempt to create standardization in addressing adverse backgrounds. Criticism falls around whether this can or should be standardized in such a way.

“The benefits and the potential pitfalls are kind of closely wrapped up around the idea of, how do you objectively measure somebody’s adverse experiences? So by taking what are usually disparate factors that are assessed subjectively by different admissions departments, the College Board is attempting to standardize those various methods of diversity in such a way that the way in which we talk about under-priviledge and the adversity that students face is normalized. The outcome being that we all have a common set of terms and definitions that we’re using in these discussions, and I think that is the benefit that they’re trying to obtain. In perspective however of potential issues, when you’re trying to standardize something that is by all means incredibly complicated and which involves a wide variety of factors, there’s always inherently going to be questions about how much weight you give to different forms of adversity,” said Gazda.

Essentially, determining the weight given to a student who is from a lower socioeconomic class versus a student of color is difficult to determine. Another factor is that the SAT is historically meant to provide a standardized metric for achievement, so whether making decisions on other student factors is the business or purpose of the College Board has been called into question.

“They’re trying to standardize something that perhaps shouldn’t, or even can’t be, standardized,” said Gazda.

Colleges claim to holistically review students’ applications in order to determine these adverse factors subjectively. But, with such an influx of applications, especially at large schools, the adversity score attempts to simplify the process. Doe argued, however, that these reviews are the way to determine a student’s adversity and should be prioritized.

“I think it looks like it’s a politically correct thing to do to acknowledge diversity, but the problem is it’s really become more complicated and confusing. If admissions officers are doing holistic reviews, and if they have the time to do them correctly, we wouldn’t need these girations,” said Doe.

As an independent college counselor, Doe recounted the comments and concerns she’s heard from parents and students about this new addition to the admissions process. She explained that many are confused, and several have mentioned they are turning to the ACT instead. There are also questions of students who don’t fall into a specific category based on a question. For example, a student may go to a private boarding school, bringing their adversity score down, but is on a need-based scholarship at this boarding school, which is counterintuitive. International students also wonder how this score affects them. Doe advocates for College Board efforts and money to instead be spent creating programs for these disadvantaged areas, such as through after-school enrichment programs.

While many see problems with the adversity score, Gazda said that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“I think that this will probably be merely the first big splash in this broader debate about the ability or whether or not there should even be a desire to give some kind of objective weighting to a person’s challenges that may not directly have to deal with their academic performance, but impact their aptitude or preparations to be a successful college student. I don’t think this is going to be the last attempt in this direction,” said Gazda.

Gazda gave the example of a different initiative being worked on by the College Board where university staff are trained to better support admitted students coming from adverse backgrounds.

What does this mean for you as a student who is applying to college? The adversity score may affect your college applications if you choose to, or are required to take, the SAT. While it’s somewhat unclear how a low adversity score will affect your applications, a high adversity score will show a college that you overcame some sort of adversity, or a combination of adverse elements. If you scored well on the test, this will speculatively be particularly impressive to admissions officers. These scores are shown to these officers, but it’s important to keep in mind that the way in which a school chooses to interpret or give weight to the score is up to the individual college or university.

Peterson’s will continue to update students and families on this topic as more information becomes available.

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