Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Aug 30, 2019

Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal writes that the College Board has dropped plans to assign an "adversity score" to each student who takes the SAT.


The College Board is abandoning its plan to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT college admissions test, after facing criticism from educators and parents.

Instead, it will try to capture a student’s social and economic background in a broad array of data points. The new tactic is called Landscape and doesn’t combine the metrics into a single score.

The original tool, called the “environmental context dashboard,” combined about 15 socio-economic metrics from a student’s high school and neighborhood to create something college admission officers called an “adversity score.”

“We listened to thoughtful criticism and made Landscape better and more transparent,” said David Coleman, CEO of the College Board in a statement. “Landscape provides admissions officers more consistent background information so they can fairly consider every student, no matter where they live and learn.”

The backlash resulted after an article in The Wall Street Journal in May detailed the College Board’s plans for the adversity score.

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.

Landscape is designed to help colleges compare an applicant’s test scores to other students in their high school and beyond, the College Board said. It also aims to give a picture of the quality of the school and relative wealth and stability of the neighborhood.

Six “challenge factors” provide the “summary neighborhood challenge indicator” and the “summary high school challenge indicator,” according to the College Board. The six factors are college attendance, household structure, median family income, housing stability, education levels and crime.

Colleges have long considered students’ high schools and neighborhoods when making admissions decisions, but with more applications coming from more places, incorporating consistent information about every high school and neighborhood becomes difficult, according to college admissions officers. Colleges will receive more than 10 million applications form students attending more than 30,000 high schools.

Nick Anderson of the Washington Post has written an article covering the College Board announcement that offers some pertinent comments by educators.


Last spring, the revealing of plans to develop an “overall disadvantage level” for each SAT taker, on a scale of 1 to 100, prompted an uproar. Many dubbed it an “adversity score.” Critics said it would be vulnerable to manipulation and could unfairly taint how an actual SAT score is perceived.

On Tuesday, the testing organization rolled out an admissions tool called Landscape that appeared intended to assuage critics.

Gone was the lightning-rod “overall disadvantage” number. “It caused a lot of unnecessary confusion and also wasn’t productive,” David Coleman, the College Board chief executive, said in a telephone interview.

The College Board said it plans to make the neighborhood and high school information visible to students and families next year. Previously, it had considered that step but had not committed to it.

Unlike the previous proposal, the College Board will not distill the ratings to a single number. But nothing would prevent a college from doing that arithmetic. “Sure, you can combine any information in an application however you see fit,” Coleman acknowledged.

Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside, said the College Board had taken “a good first step” by simplifying its metrics and making them more transparent. Comeaux chairs a board of the UC Academic Senate that oversees admission issues within the UC system. He said Landscape is “just a small mechanism” in an admissions process that historically has favored the privileged.

“You’re trying to find a way to make this more equitable, right?” he said. “Even with this new tool, you still have people that have to interpret that and execute the plan.”

Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor at Georgetown University and former senior official for the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, said the episode showed anew the tensions underlying admission tests.

“The College Board is discovering who they are and where they are,” Carnevale said in an email. “They are the personnel director for America’s race and class elites and their elite colleges. When they step out of that role, they make people and institutions very nervous.”