New score comes as college admissions decisions are under scrutiny
by Douglas Belkin, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2019
The College Board plans to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT to try to capture their social and economic background, jumping into the debate raging over race and class in college admissions.
This new number, called an adversity score by college admissions officers, is calculated using 15 factors including the crime rate and poverty levels from the student’s high school and neighborhood. Students won’t be told the scores, but colleges will see the numbers when reviewing their applications.
Fifty colleges used the score last year as part of a beta test. The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.
How colleges consider a student’s race and class in making admissions decisions is hotly contested. Many colleges, including Harvard University, say a diverse student body is part of the educational mission of a school. A lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants by holding them to a higher standard is awaiting a judge’s ruling. Lawsuits charging unfair admission practices have also been filed against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California system.
The College Board, the New York based nonprofit that oversees the SAT, said it has worried about income inequality influencing test results for years. White students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates.
“There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more,” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board. “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”
The SAT, which includes math and verbal sections and is still taken with No. 2 pencils, is facing challenges. Federal prosecutors revealed this spring that students cheated on both the SAT and ACT for years as part of a far-reaching college admissions cheating scheme. In Asia and the Middle East, both the ACT and SAT exams have experienced security breaches.
Yale University is one of the schools that has tried using applicants’ adversity scores. Yale has pushed to increase socioeconomic diversity and, over several years, has nearly doubled the number of low-income and first-generation-to-attend-college students to about 20% of newly admitted students, said Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale.
“This [adversity score] is literally affecting every application we look at,” he said. “It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”
Colleges could glean some of the information that the adversity score reflects from other parts of a student’s application. But having the score makes comparisons more consistent, Mr. Quinlan said.
James Conroy, director of college counseling at New Trier High School, which serves several affluent and mostly white communities north of Chicago, said the focus on diversity by elite colleges is already high and the adversity score would magnify that.
“My emails are inundated with admissions officers who want to talk to our diversity kids,” Mr. Conroy said. “Do I feel minority students have been discriminated against? Yes, I do. But I see the reversal of it happening right now.”
The College Board tried a similar effort two decades ago but quickly dropped it amid pushback from colleges. In 1999, after California and Washington voted to ban affirmative-action preferences in public education, the College Board created a program it called Strivers.
The program aimed to measure the challenges students faced. It created an expected SAT score based on socioeconomic factors including, if schools chose to add it, race. Students who scored at least 200 points more on the SAT than predicted were called Strivers. Because minorities often had lower predicted scores, they were more likely to be Strivers.
The adversity score, by contrast, doesn’t take into account race and is superior because it is steeped in more research, said Connie Betterton, vice president for higher education access and strategy at the College Board.
“Since it is identifying strengths in students, it’s showing this resourcefulness that the test alone cannot measure,” Mr. Coleman, the College Board CEO, said. “These students do well, they succeed in college.”
The new score—which falls on a scale of one through 100—will pop up on something called the Environmental Context Dashboard, which shows several indicators of relative poverty, wealth and opportunity as well as a student’s SAT score compared with those of their classmates. On the dashboard, the score is called “Overall Disadvantage Level.”
An adversity score of 50 is average. Anything above it designates hardship, below it privilege.
The College Board declined to say how it calculates the adversity score or weighs the factors that go into it. The data that informs the score comes from public records such as the U.S. Census as well as some sources proprietary to the College Board, Mr. Coleman said.
The College Board began developing the tool in 2015 because colleges were asking for more objective data on students’ backgrounds, said Ms. Betterton. Several college admissions officers said they worry the Supreme Court may disallow race-based affirmative action. If that happens, the value of the tool would rise, they said.
“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale formerly worked for the College Board and oversaw the Strivers program.
The dashboard may also be an advantage in a tight competition for market share with the ACT, another college-admissions exam. A spokesman for the ACT said it is “investing significant resources” in a comparable tool that is expected to be announced later this year.
At Florida State University, the adversity scores helped the school boost nonwhite enrollment to 42% from 37% in the incoming freshman class, said John Barnhill, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida State University. He said he expects pushback from parents whose children go to well-to-do high schools as well as guidance counselors there.
“If I am going to make room for more of the [poor and minority] students we want to admit and I have a finite number of spaces, then someone has to suffer and that will be privileged kids on the bubble,” he said.