College Board adopts ‘adversity index’ as colleges make SAT optional
Instead of paying thousands to boost their children’s SAT scores, wealthy parents may instead consider moving to a high-crime neighborhood and getting a divorce.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, PSAT and Advanced Placement test, is expanding a program that gives each applicants a score based on their socio-economic background, a so-called “adversity index” aimed at improving the admissions chances of students who face hardship.
The 15 factors in the Environmental Context Dashboard include information about the student’s community, such as average family income, crime rate and housing stability, as well as their high school, including average SAT scores, number of AP courses, and percentage of students eligible for free lunch.
What’s not included in the index: race or ethnicity.
“There is talent and potential waiting to be discovered in every community — the children of poor rural families, kids navigating the challenges of life in the inner city, and military dependents who face the daily difficulties of low income and frequent deployments as part of their family’s service to our country,” said College Board CEO David Coleman. “No single test score should ever be examined without paying attention to this critical context.”
The dashboard, which began with a 50-school pilot program, is scheduled to spread to 150 colleges and universities in the fall, with the goal of making it widely available free of charge in 2020, according to the College Board statement. The creation of the index comes with the SAT struggling to remain relevant as universities increasingly make standardized tests less standard. In 2018-19 alone, 40 schools announced they would adopt test-optional policies, according to New America, bringing the total to more than 1,000.
The College Board, which runs the National Merit Scholarship program, was also caught up in the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues sting. Last month, 36-year-old Mark Riddell pleaded guilty to charging students $10,000 per exam to take the SAT and ACT, raising questions about testing security.
The SAT has long wrestled with inequality, given the racial divide in test scores. In 2018, white students scored 177 points higher on average than black students, and 133 points higher than Hispanic students. Asian students scored 100 points higher than whites, according to the Wall Street Journal.
With the dashboard, however, the College Board offers a service that can help admissions officers level the playing field and increase racial diversity — without asking about race — as affirmative action comes under fire, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow and director of K-12 Equity at the Century Foundation.
While the Environmental Context Dashboard doesn’t incorporate race or ethnicity as indicators of adversity, it’s also true that black and Hispanic students are more likely on average to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It’s possible the Supreme Court will constrain the ability of universities to use race in admissions in the coming years,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “And if that happens, then the College Board’s tool will be an important way to continue to promote racial and ethnic diversity, as well as economic diversity.”
At least eight states have banned the use of race in admissions decisions at public universities, while Harvard has been accused in a lawsuit of discriminating against Asian-American students.
“It’s a smart move for the College Board to create a way which universities can continue to use the SAT, which is a common metric across high schools, and preserve the important goal of ensuring racial diversity on campus,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, who met with board officials on the index.
The unpalatable alternative for the College Board is that more universities will make the SAT optional.
A 2018 study, “Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works,” hosted by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, found that two-thirds of the 28 colleges surveyed increased the number of minority students after adopting test-optional policies.
In addition, 35 percent of black students opted not to submit standardized test scores, versus 18 percent of white students. Women were also less likely than men to turn in scores. Applications also increased by 29 percent at private universities and 11 percent at public universities, according to Inside HigherEd.
“We do not argue that institutions should entirely eliminate consideration of the ACT and SAT for all their students, however, we do continue to question whether the value-add of testing is large enough to justify the price — time spent, financial cost, and emotional drain — being paid by students due to societal preoccupation with these tests,” said the study’s authors.
There may be another reason universities have moved away from requiring the SAT: the outsize influence of the U.S. News & World Report “best colleges” guidebook, which reports the average test scores of applicants.
“The cynical interpretation is that colleges want to improve their rankings on U.S. News & World Report, and if they make SATs optional, then only the students who did well send in their scores,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “And that’s what they report to U.S. News.”
The “adversity index” pilot program, which included Yale, Florida State, Michigan and Trinity universities, found that admissions offices were more likely to admit students from “higher levels of disadvantage,” according to the College Board.
The dashboard scores students on a scale of 1-100, with those registering higher than 50 considered disadvantaged. The adversity scores are reported separately from SAT results.
While the index raises questions about whether rich students with better scores would lose seats to poor students, Justin Doty, dean of admissions at Trinity, said his Texas school would only use the adversity information to boost applications, not downgrade them.
“We’re not counting anything against a student for not facing adversity like someone else did. It’s more about the students who have high adversity, framing that and giving more opportunities potentially for those students,” Mr. Doty said in an April 15 post.
Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, author of “The Diversity Delusion,” blasted the College Board for “caving” to “this scourge of diversity, which is simply a way to dismantle precisely the color-blind meritocratic standards that are a key to any society’s success.”
“This is all about culture, and for the College Board to be getting behind the idea that it’s about white privilege is completely fallacious and a tragic disservice to the country,” Ms. MacDonald said on Fox News Channels’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Pace University president Martin Krislov said that the index could be “one of several helpful data points for universities to consider.”
“The ‘Adversity Index’ can only tell a certain part of the story. It won’t let admissions officers know if the student has overcome a major disability or illness,” Mr. Krislov said in a Thursday statement. “Or if the student has experienced a significant loss. But it can be a useful new factor in a holistic admissions review.”
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