Putting a Number on Adversity

In May 2019, the College Board proposed the expansion of the Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD), a pilot program tested by fifty colleges last year, to all colleges by 2020. The ECD included on SAT score reports, with its centerpiece “adversity score,” was aimed at helping colleges evaluate students’ scores in the context of their socioeconomic background. However, the ECD was revised and the College Board abandoned the adversity score in August following heavy criticism.

The score was an index based on fifteen factors related to students’ high schools and neighborhoods, including overall AP test achievement, crime level, and median family income. For example, a student at Washington High School would receive a low score regardless of their individual circumstances because the school and its surrounding neighborhood are considered “privileged” in every factor. 

Directly preceding the reveal of the adversity score was the college admissions scandal of March 2019, in which fifty people were prosecuted for involvement in bribery, cheating on college admissions exams, and fabrication of athletic profiles. Although it appeared to be a response to the scandal, the groundwork for the score was laid down in 2015. 

The adversity score was developed as a response to colleges’ desire for more background information on students. Colleges were interested in addressing issues of socioeconomic inequality and the score was a way for them to obtain the student body diversity they had attempted to gain through affirmative action programs in previous years. Additionally, the score was intended to counterbalance the fact that test preparation has consistently correlated to doing well on the SAT, which favors wealthier students who can afford more resources. 

Criticism flooded in from admissions officials and test-prep organizations who claimed that the College Board was essentially admitting that the SAT score alone was not an objective measure of academic ability. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest (an advocacy organization for equal opportunity in standardized testing), concluded that the College Board’s plan “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.” 

The score was also attacked due to the possibility of perpetuating the very issue the College Board was attempting to address: socioeconomic background influencing test performance. Michael T. Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University, described the score as “a potential source of self-handicapping and self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

For instance, if a student knew or estimated their score to be low, they may consider it to be justification for academic performance below their potential. Students with “privileged” environments (e.g. WHS students) may be convinced that colleges have higher expectations for them while students with “underprivileged” environments may be convinced that colleges have lower expectations for them.

Leaving most criticisms unaddressed, the College Board revised their plan and introduced Landscape which would include most of the factors that were considered in the adversity score but without the single score format. In the continuing debate of the role of standardized testing in college admissions, the College Board’s efforts are just one factor in the grand scheme of America’s aspiration to become a true meritocracy in spite of the interdependence of education and socioeconomic status.

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