Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Jun 06, 2019

The College Board has announced a new feature called the Environmental Context Dashboard, which features a score from 1 to 100 assigned to all students who have taken the SAT that has been dubbed by some in the media as an "adversity score". (A score above 50 will indicate "adversity" and a score below 50 "privilege".) The assigned score is derived from separate data sets for 15 factors for a student’s neighborhood and a student’s high school, measuring items such as educational attainment, college-going behavior, unemployment levels, family income, house values, the percentage of single-parent families, and the probability of being a crime victim. These "adversity scores" have so far undergone a limited trial run at 50 colleges (including Yale University), will be shared with 150 participating colleges beginning with the fall of 2019, and are planned to be utilized "broadly" starting in 2020. Initially, the College Board stated that students themselves will not be privy to these adversity scores (they would only be seen by college admissions officers), but the organization seemed to backtrack on that position thereafter, with College Board CEO David Coleman stating that the organization was "reconsidering" allowing students to view their own scores in the interest of "transparency".

While ACT, Inc. has been working on the development of tools to allow colleges to gain greater insight into the background of ACT test takers submitting applications, the organization has released a statement critical of the College Board's move.


Marten Roorda, CEO of ACT, said in a blog post that he respects the intent behind the College Board's move, but he disagrees with it.

"The algorithm and research behind this adversity score have not been published. It is basically a black box. Any composite score and any measurement in general requires transparency; students, teachers and admissions officers have the right to know," Roorda wrote. "Now we can’t review the validity and the fairness of the score. And even if that changes, there is also an issue with the reliability of the measure, since many of the 15 variables come from an unchecked source -- for example, when they are self-reported by the student. The plan to report the adversity score only to the college is another example of not being transparent. If I were a student, I would become concerned or angry if the testing company would provide an adversity score to colleges without me knowing it, without me approving it, and without any of the end users understanding how this score is calculated."

Roorda also predicted more problems ahead: "If parents, teachers and counselors know test scores will be re-equated for adversity, some will attempt to manipulate and game the system. That is easy: you can use an address of someone you know who is living in a poor neighborhood or report lower family income."

The following questions should be kept in mind when reading coverage of the College Board's new "adversity score" offered below:

---What is the motivation of the College Board in creating the Environmental Context Dashboard? The decision should be viewed in the context of a rapid growth in the test optional movement in recent years, as hundreds of colleges and universities in the US have adopted policies making the submission of SAT/ACT scores optional. While the number of students choosing not to submit scores (at least to some of the institutions to which they have applied) has certainly increased, the number of students actually taking the SAT/ACT each year has continued to increase. The College Board's new "adversity score" was clearly conceived as a tool to blunt the continued criticism stemming from higher scores on the SAT among affluent students, a factor cited by many colleges as a motivation for their adoption of test optional policies. In creating the ECD, the College Board may have had its eye on mitigating the impact of test optional policies before the number of students incentivized to take the SAT actually experiences a decline.

---What does the initiation of an "adversity score" in 2019 say about the College Board's previous insistence (over many decades) that the SAT did not disadvantage students from poorer backgrounds in the college admissions process, despite the strong and sustained correlation between family income and SAT scores?

---Is the inclusion of a measure of the availability of AP classes at each high school as part of the ECD motivated in part to increase sales of AP classes and materials (which are the College Board's largest source of revenue, generating over $500 million annually)?

---Is the ECD really a step forward when it does not add new information specific to the student who is applying? The new feature will collate statistics regarding a student's neighborhood and high school, but will not add information specific to a student's particular circumstances. Most colleges and universities already have methods placing a student's academic performance in context.

---The massive test prep industry (and the widespread cheating on the SAT and ACT that has occurred in recent years) is proof that plays a crucial role in college admissions will be subjected to exploitation. Going forward, will high school counselors, college consultants and media outlets be offering students tips on "How to Increase Your Adversity Score"?


Excerpts from the College Board announcement about the Environmental Context Dashboard are offered below:


The Dashboard has three components:

SAT scores in context: Student’s SAT scores can be seen within the context of the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of SAT scores from the student’s high school (3-year average). The SAT score is the only piece of student-specific information admissions officers see in the Dashboard.

Information on the high school: Including senior class size; percentage of students who meet federal eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price lunch; rurality/urbanicity; and average first-year SAT score of colleges students from that high school attend, the percentage of seniors taking an AP Exam, average number of AP Exams taken, average AP score from that high school, and the number of unique AP Exams administered at that high school (3-year average).

Contextual data on the neighborhood and high school environment: The context data includes two measures—neighborhood and high school environment—calculated using data drawn from a combination of publicly available sources (e.g., NCES and U.S. Census Bureau), and aggregated College Board data.

News of the initiation of the Environmental Context Dashboard was first reported by Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal.


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.

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 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.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has also written an article on the new Environmental Context Dashboard that examines many aspects of the new feature, and critical response from many educators.


Randolf Arguelles, branch director of Elite Prep San Francisco, said that the index "is effectively College Board admitting that the SAT is unfair." He added, "If the score on your standardized test requires a separate algorithm to determine if the score is actually a valid measure of ability, then perhaps it's time to fix the test itself rather than contextualize its scores."
Michael T. Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University, writing in Forbes, said that "the fact that the College Board does not want students to know their adversity scores reflects their own discomfort with the concept. And for good reason. It’s a potential source of self-handicapping and self-fulfilling prophecy," he wrote. Along those lines, he said that neighborhoods need not be destiny, and he said he was bothered by generalizing about students from where they live.

Nietzel added, "At a time when standardized testing is under increased scrutiny and is even being discontinued or minimized as an admission tool by hundreds of colleges, one must wonder whether adversity scores are primarily an attempt to protect the SAT’s market or to promote social mobility. Colleges that are genuinely concerned about the bias built into the tests or the cheating associated with the SAT or the ACT have a simpler choice: don’t require students to take them."

Catherine Gewertz of Education Week covers the advent of the adversity score here: Counselors Blast College Board's Plan to Assign Students a 'Disadvantage' Score


Some counselors had supportive words for the College Board’s program, which scores students' high schools' and neighborhoods' "level of disadvantage" on a scale from 1-100. But criticism and skepticism far outweighed applause.

“If they are admitting that we need this adversity score, and that they are only rolling it out to 150 colleges next year, then why are we still using this test?” Stacey Cunitz, the director of college counseling at the Crefeld School, a private school for grades 7-12 in Philadelphia, said on a listserv for college counselors.

She, and many others, worried that wealthier parents will try to outsmart the system.

“Are we now going to have rich parents buying houses in poor zip codes so their kids can get a higher adversity score?” she said in an interview.

Cristiana Quinn, who founded College Admission Advisors in Providence, R.I., which provides college counseling for students and families, wondered whether the new dashboard would encourage better-off students to choose the ACT. That company’s CEO, Marten Roorda, wrote Friday afternoon that the ACT would not follow suit with a similar system.

“If the SAT is going to start identifying students on level of adversity, or grit, or what-have-you, and ACT is not, does that mean the ACT is going to become a better test for more affluent students to take so they’re not identified as low adversity?” she said.

The “level of panic,” as one college admissions official called it, was so high on social media that the College Board scrambled to issue a “what you need to know” document about the dashboard.

College Board CEO David Coleman said the project is meant to encourage colleges to recognize student qualities that the SAT can’t capture, such as resourcefulness. Essays, letters of recommendation, and the “profiles” most high schools post sometimes capture the challenges and circumstances students face, he said, but in many cases, colleges must dig to find those things out, or simply do without that information. Without a tool like the dashboard, he said, “the SAT could be misleading.”

“To warrant that the playing field is now level isn’t right or just,” Coleman said. “In the America we live in … the vast majority of students are working with a lot less than the top third. To then say that the SAT is enough to reflect what you can do, no, it isn’t.”

Others were suspicious of the College Board’s motives for building the new tool, at a time when the list of colleges that now make the SAT or ACT optional has grown to more than 1,200. Could the new tool be a bid to stop more from jumping ship?

Nick Anderson, education journalist for the Washington Post, covers the advent of the Environmental Context Dashboard here.


Charles A. Deacon, the veteran dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown University, said he was skeptical about the value of the score.
“We have so much personal data on all of our applicants that we don’t feel the need for a tool like this,” Deacon said. “In this era of ‘data analytics’ I guess this is one that could be helpful, but to be honest I still see college admissions as ‘an art, not a science’ so I’m prone to resist quantifying things too much.”

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of the College Board, said the adversity score is a ploy to defend the SAT against “well-documented critiques” of the harm caused by relying too much on admission tests.

“Test-makers long claimed that their products were a ‘common yardstick’ for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools,” Schaeffer said in a statement. “This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of ‘accumulated advantage’ which should not be used without an understanding of a student’s community and family background.”

Nick Anderson has written a follow-up article that cites the varying responses the College Board's new admissions tool has aroused:


Skeptics, including the rival ACT, say it is foolhardy to attempt to distill adversity to a single number from 1 to 100 that can add value to the review of applications. They predict devious parents will seek to manipulate numbers to help their children get into college, perhaps by faking their home addresses. And they worry about the unintended consequences of reshaping perceptions of student accomplishments.

“The idea that ‘this is a great SAT score for someone from your neighborhood, for someone of your background’ — it’s not fair to the students,” said Venkates Swaminathan, a college admissions consultant in San Francisco.

The idea is actually a pretty good one,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. “It provides additional context, and it’s race-neutral. . . . It’s especially good when you don’t know the high school.”

Boeckenstedt’s view was notable because his university does not require admissions tests, and he is a frequent critic of the College Board.

Researchers showed in a 2017 study that when admissions officers were given consistent and detailed information about high schools, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families were more likely to get into selective colleges.

“Relying on the test alone, without context, does miss the resourcefulness that is an essential part of merit,” [College Board president David] Coleman said. “The test alone cannot be an equalizer.”

The ACT’s chief executive, Marten Roorda, said he has no plans to launch a similar adversity rating. Roorda said he believes Coleman has “good intentions.” But the College Board’s action, Roorda said, could tempt some people to try to use the new data to adjust SAT scores for socioeconomic circumstances. “That’s something you just don’t do,” he said in an interview.

Roorda also questioned why only colleges can see the adversity measure. “If I were a student, I would become concerned or angry if the testing company would provide an adversity score to colleges without me knowing it, without me approving it, and without any of the end users understanding how this score is calculated,” Roorda wrote on an ACT blog.

Joseph A. Soares, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who is a critic of admissions testing, said the College Board hasn’t demonstrated the value of the adversity rating. “They’re flooding the world with more noise and less signal,” he said.

Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the data helped the university deepen its review of applications. He noted that Georgia Tech, like other prominent universities, draws a significant number of students from affluent families. “Should a kid with a low adversity score be concerned?” Clark said. “My response to that is, not at all.”

The adversity rating is not the first systematic effort to give more context to SAT scores. In 1999, researchers at the nonprofit Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, proposed to quantify the difference between actual scores and expected scores based on analysis of family income, parental education and other factors. Those who scored 200 or more points higher than expected, under that proposal, were to have been labeled “strivers.” One version included race and ethnicity as a factor in the formula.

The idea bombed.

“We got a tremendous negative reaction,” recalled Anthony P. Carnevale, who was then an ETS vice president. Now director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Carnevale applauded the College Board’s new measure but said it is risky. “David Coleman’s done a good deed, and he’s going to pay for it,” he said.

New York Times coverage of the "adversity score" can be found here.


The new measurement brings the College Board squarely into the raging national debate over fairness and merit in college admissions, one fueled by enduring court clashes on affirmative action, a federal investigation into a sprawling admissions cheating ring and a booming college preparatory industry that promises results to those who can pay.
But the score met instantly with an array of criticisms, from worries that it created a new cast of winners and losers in the admissions process, to concerns that it papered over an inherently flawed test. College counselors said they were swamped with calls from parents on Thursday as word of the new measurement got out.

“Anxiety’s ratcheting up,” said Hafeez Lakhani, a college admissions coach in New York. “People are worried about never being good enough.”

He said he had received emails from parents asking whether their children’s hard work in preparing for the SAT “would be completely negated just because we happen to have some means.”

Mr. Lakhani said that in his view, colleges were already doing a good job of considering adversity, as indicated by rising numbers of first-generation and low-income students, especially at elite colleges.

Others felt that the College Board’s efforts were misplaced. Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a group that is critical of standardized testing, said that if the SAT needed a sophisticated contextual framework to make it valid, then “it’s a concession that it’s not a good test.”

He added that the adversity score would not capture individual situations, like a child who was middle class but whose mother was addicted to opioids. “Mentally adjusting scores based on where a student came from and what obstacles she overcame is common practice,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “It’s this attempt to do it in a quantitative manner that opens up many other issues.”

David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he believed that overworked admissions officers would welcome a more standardized measure of hardship and disadvantage.

“I think this is done with at least one eye to the legal considerations that admissions officers are subjected to, the long history of lawsuits about race and ethnicity,” Mr. Hawkins said.

College Board CEO David Coleman explained the new adversity scores in an interview with CBS here.

Opinions on the new Environmental Context Dashboard and the "adversity score":


Critical opinions:

Top Tier Admissions, a college consultant firm co-founded by Michele Hernandez (a former Dartmouth College admissions officer and author of the book A is For Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges), has posted a lengthy blog post that casts a critical eye on the putative motivations of the College Board in creating the adversity score:


It is interesting to note that the College Board includes AP opportunity as part of its adversity index. Does this mean that students at high-performing high schools who have decided to eschew the AP in favor of their own courses will see their adversity score tick up?

The real question is, why is the College Board doing this? The College Board notes that admissions officers have asked for a tool like this to help them as they work to increase the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic composition of their student bodies. To many, the prospect of the Supreme Court disallowing race-based affirmative action is a real one. The use of other socioeconomic contextual factors— already a key part of the holistic admissions review process at top colleges—is seen as a way to mitigate the impact of a reversal by the Court. But again, much of this is already evident from the students’ applications.

As applicant pools balloon each year, it’s pretty obvious that the ability to conduct a thoughtful, holistic review is a nice aspirational statement for a college’s website but far from the reality. Applicants are reduced to data points that are fed into an enrollment algorithm and out pops the ideal composition of the admit group. Do we want the process to be even more formulaic? Should admissions officers be predisposed to prefer an application based solely on their adversity score? Would this lead to students from more affluent backgrounds being discriminated against solely because of their zip codes? Why bother with asking for essays and supplements when enrollment management software churns out the right mix of admits? As the recent cheating scandal showed us, there are no guarantees that students and parents will not misrepresent themselves in the admissions process. It would be relatively easy to underreport family income, for instance. There is no effective check for honesty and little motivation for students to be accurate or provide information that will be used against them.

It’s hard not to wonder what else might be behind the College Board’s actions. The inclusion of “AP opportunity” seems like an overt ploy to get more high schools to implement the AP curriculum. We know that the College Board has been losing market share to the ACT, so is this a business decision intended to reverse the declining revenue?

We applaud the efforts by admissions offices at colleges to build meaningful diversity in their student bodies. Our communities, our nation, and our world will be better for it. But, is it fair that the College Board, the group that has designed a test that has proven to be unfair and biased towards black and Hispanic students and those from low income backgrounds, is now telling everyone that they have a secret score that somehow mitigates the discrimination? Is it fair that the College Board penalize students who happen to live in affluent areas and attend good schools, especially those schools that don’t offer AP courses?

Increasing numbers of colleges have already decided to eliminate the SAT (and ACT) from their admissions process and report talented and diverse cohorts of students enrolling. Perhaps now is the ideal time for a reboot of the entire process, focused less on pleasing shareholders and more on investing in quality public education for all students that prepares them to be successful students in college and beyond. We’re not convinced the College Board has anything besides its own business interests in mind.

Writing in USA Today, Todd Rose, Harvard professor and author, opines that 'College Board's SAT remains a 'near useless' measure of college merit':


The SAT uses questions aimed to differentiate candidates rather than assess their capability to perform in a college setting. Its goal is not to prove mastery of essential skills like writing and verbal and mathematical reasoning, but to pit test takers against one another in the quest to fill coveted spots in colleges.

Given the larger-than-life role the SAT plays in our culture, you would be forgiven for thinking the test would be a predictor of college performance. They’re not. Research is clear that high school grades are far better predictors of academic success. The real purpose of the test is to give universities cover to make the admissions choices it wants to fulfill its mission, picking those individuals they want to pick. The same thing will likely be true of an “adversity score,” where someone’s social or economic standing among their cohort will be used as judgment to determine their worthiness of entry to college.

On its surface, the Environmental Context Dashboard might seem to enhance the opportunity for those from a disadvantaged background to receive an education — a worthwhile and long overdue change to a higher education system corrupted by a false scarcity, legacy admissions and, as the public has witnessed in recent months, rampant cheating and bribery. It will reinforce a view of human potential that fits the rigid contours of a bell curve and the wrongheaded idea that only some are entitled to succeed.

In all fairness to the 119-year-old College Board, the SAT is merely a symbol of a much larger problem plaguing the American meritocracy: the reality that technology and human preferences in 2019 are outstripping and rendering obsolete institutions built for an Industrial Age that valued standardization and one-size-fits-all models reducing all of us to an average that very few of us actually fit. But if we don’t cast aside the SAT and call it what it is — a near useless metric for measuring knowledge and admissions worthiness — it will be hard to move the rest of our social systems that are supposed to bear some relationship to merit.

For the better half of the 18th century, some of the most sought after medical practitioners in the world practiced phrenology. By studying bumps on the human skull, it was believed that a doctor could determine an individual’s personality traits, moral character and raw intelligence. We now know phrenology to be a pseudoscience with no empirical basis. A generation from now, we will look back on the SAT with the same disdain we hold the quack doctors of yesteryear who drew conclusions about mental fitness and aptitude by touching skulls.

National Review's Declan Leary takes a critical stance towards the Environmental Context Dashboard, stating that "The New SAT ‘Adversity Score’ Misses the Point":


It would be impossible to deny that the results of the SAT and similar standardized tests vary significantly across class and race. But what matters is whether the new score accurately identifies the nature of the problems that lead to those disparities, and whether it presents a real path for overcoming them.

Students fail tests because schools, parents, and a number of other social factors are stacked against them. To ignore that reality is to throw young people unprepared into competitive schools and a competitive world, at the expense of everyone involved — the students, the institutions whose standards inevitably decline, and their deserving peers who were passed over — in the name of a forced and false equality. To address it will take a lot more than adding another number to the College Board’s scoresheets.

Another National Review article critical of the new adversity score has been written by Jason Richwine: What ‘Everyone Knows’ about the SAT Is Wrong


Last week I lamented that the College Board’s new practice of assigning applicants an “adversity score” will perpetuate a widespread myth — that the SAT is biased against students from poor or minority backgrounds. SAT scores predict college performance for underprivileged students about as well as they do for everyone else. To the extent there is a difference, the College Board’s own data show that a high adversity score is associated with slightly lower college grades than testing would predict. The idea that the SAT scores of high-adversity applicants need to be corrected upward to ensure a merit-based system is wrong.

If advocates of affirmative action in college admissions couched their arguments entirely in that social-justice framework, I would find their position more respectable. But giving preferences to lower-achieving students is in no way compatible with a merit-based system. When college administrators favor lower-scoring applicants, with no evidence that their scores underestimate their future success on campus or in the broader world, they have prioritized redistribution over merit. Why not acknowledge that?


Supportive Opinion:

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a Senior fellow at The Century Foundation known for his books and articles about affirmative action and higher education, has written an article in The Atlantic offering qualified support for the College Board's new admissions metric: An Imperfect SAT Adversity Score Is Better Than Just Ignoring Adversity.


I have studied aspects of college admissions for decades. While the adversity measure was in development, I myself attended four meetings at the College Board to discuss the concept. I recommended, based on extensive research, that socioeconomic disadvantage be included at the family, neighborhood, and school levels. The College Board ended up using only the last two of the three.

Nevertheless, even an imperfect adversity score is better than failing to account for the difficulty so many students overcome. Research from Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University has found that the most disadvantaged students, on average, score a whopping 784 points lower on the SAT (out of a possible 1600) than the most advantaged.

[The College Board's new adversity score] does not count race, the College Board official Connie Betterton told The New York Times, because the use of racial preferences has been banned in several states where the SAT is used (including large states such as California and Florida). In an interview, Betterton told me that the adversity score omits any consideration of a student’s own financial circumstances, because to incorporate that could complicate some universities’ need-blind admissions policies.

The ultimate benefit of the adversity score is that it provides a quantitative counterpoint to the SAT itself. The SAT has a talismanic character—to the point that people remember their score 30 years later—in part because of its seeming precision. Having a single adversity score to counterbalance the SAT is a healthy corrective.

...whatever the flaws of the College Board’s adversity score might be, it’s a number that admissions officers will have to see, and it will inevitably change the way they read the rest of an applicant’s file. It’s not as though, in the absence of such a score, colleges have done a good job of admitting substantial numbers of students who have overcome tough odds. At the least, the College Board is offering schools a simple, straightforward way to give underprivileged applicants a chance.