In Effort to Address Wealth and Privilege in SAT Scores, College Board Unveils “Adversity Score”

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Dozens of universities around the country have signed onto a new program that will attach an “adversity score” to applicants’ SAT scores in an effort to expand diversity in higher education. The College Board, the non-profit organization behind the SATs, developed the program as a sort of counterbalance to the wealth and privilege that can greatly influence students’ test scores. We’ve seen this play out in the recent high-profile college admissions scandal, though wealth and privilege have always played into a student’s chances of getting accepted to the schools of their choice.

The adversity scores will factor in relevant data like the median family income, college attendance rates, crime rates, and housing circumstances in a student’s neighborhood and school, data that the College Board felt would have a significant impact on whether or not a student can ultimately succeed. The adversity score will not, however, include an individual student’s data. For example, the data will not reflect if your parent bribes an admissions officer to get you into school, but it will take into account certain markers of crime in your community; no word on if the College Board’s adversity score algorithm involves white collar crime rates.

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Adversity scores will not alter a student’s test score. Rather, the scores will give admissions teams yet another piece of contextual data through which to screen applicants. “The insight is in the judgment of the admissions office: ‘Wow, this score, given this context, that’s something I want to see,’” David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, explained to the Washington Post. Interpreted and expressed through an algorithm, the collection of data will either raise or lower the adversity score that appears on a student’s “environmental context dashboard,” a number between zero and 100, with higher numbers expressing more adverse educational and life circumstances that would likely affect a student’s opportunities to perform well in college entrance exams. The data is not revealed to students, but is available to colleges as they process applications.

Even though racial diversity is ultimately one goal of the College Board’s new program, one piece of data that has notably been left out of the adversity score is race. Coleman told the New York Times that this is because race itself was not a major determining factor in whether a student is able to score well on college entrance exams. “It turns out in America that within every racial group — Asian, white, black, Latino — there are large numbers of people who show resourcefulness within very limited circumstances.” Resourcefulness, he continued, was a reflection of a student’s merit. “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given. It helps colleges see students who may not have scored as high, but when you look at the environment that they have emerged from, it is amazing.”

According to a recent Pew survey, less than half of Americans even feel that standardized test scores should be a major factor in college admissions, so the grand announcement of the adversity score feels like a bit of a distraction from the real issues surrounding higher education. Regardless, the adversity score is sure to spark a huge debate over the weekend regarding standardized test scores, the illusion of merit in higher education, and whether it is even possible to effectively boil down a student’s socio-economic circumstances into a single number.