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Can the College Board Measure Adversity on the SAT?

The College Board plans to score a student's adversity from one to 100.
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The College Board's new measurement is meant to help level the playing field for undeserved students.

Research has long shown that the SAT perpetuates inequalities in access to education. Starting this fall, the College Board plans to add another score to the 1600: a measure that college admissions officers are calling an "adversity score," which is based on factors like crime rates and poverty levels in a student's neighborhood, in an attempt to account for socioeconomic background in the admissions process.

Called the "Overall Disadvantage Level," the score will appear on a student's Environmental Context Dashboard alongside other measurements of relative poverty, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the plan on Thursday. It's calculated using 15 factors based on proprietary and public data, like the United States Census, and scores will range from one to 100: Above 50 means a student faced hardship; below 50 means privilege.

The measurement came out of research attempting to make the admissions process more equitable. "There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more," David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, told the Wall Street Journal. "We can't sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT." Researchers who helped develop the dashboard found that just giving colleges this added context made admissions officers 25 percent more likely to admit low-income students.

Other testing companies have welcomed the change. "We are in support of this type of metric if it creates greater opportunities for underserved students and helps level the playing field for those who might otherwise not have access," representatives for Kaplan Test Prep, which provides SAT practice tests and tutoring, said in a statement on Twitter.

The College Board has declined to share the details of its calculations with the media. The score itself will also be kept secret from the individual student. Given this lack of transparency, some education advocates and experts are worried that the measure cannot compensate for the test's racist history.

For example, not accounting for race will overlook the discrimination that middle-class students of color face in education and their daily lives. There's also the fear that school-level data could lump in privileged white students with low-income students of color. Meanwhile, conservatives have already decried the plan as a way to get around recent challenges to affirmative action.

To learn more, Pacific Standard spoke with Patricia Gándara, a research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California–Los Angeles who specializes in educational equity and access for low-income and ethnic minority students.


What do you make of this policy? Will an "adversity score" address inequities in standardized testing and college preparation?

Yes, it can address the inequities, though it won't likely compensate completely for the differences in resources of all kinds that students experience. The evidence provided in the [Wall Street Journal] article suggests that it is helping to identify more students of color (and possibly low-income students of all races).

How can you actually measure something like adversity?

There has been quite a lot of research on this over several decades now—we can't do it perfectly and likely never will be able to, but there are key factors in a person's life and education that affect their ability to compete equally with more advantaged individuals—these are, I assume, some of the factors that the adversity scale looks at.

What are the limitations of this formula, which reportedly uses factors like the crime rate and poverty levels in a student's school or neighborhood?

Limitations include "hidden factors"—like extended family wealth and education, personality characteristics, advantages in family strengths, aspects of the school attended—that can have very different effects on different students (e.g., a very important black or Latino teacher).

What's the effect of overlooking these factors?

There's a lot of hidden wealth in our society—grandparents who pay for the tuition or help with the mortgage—that just really aren't visible. People can look to be in different circumstances than they are. There are factors that are known to be highly correlated with your score on an SAT: family income, family education. A lot of times students who are immigrants may appear to be very low-income because the immigrant parents aren't able to place themselves in a good occupational setting right away, but they have high levels of education. That doesn't show up. It's cutting both ways.

Some experts have said it's a problem that the score does not include race. What might be the drawbacks of that choice?

It is not possible to fully capture the effects of race—what it means in this society and the more localized meaning of race—without asking about race. So other factors are used as proxies, but it will never be the same as simply asking "the race question." The models do not ask this, because one big reason folks have been working on the issue is because it has become increasingly difficult to ask [since at least eight states have banned affirmative action, and the Trump administration withdrew Obama-era documents endorsing the use of race as a factor in college admissions]. But also because of general sensitivities.

You can account for income and neighborhood, which are associated with race, but you can't account for the stereotyping or the preconceptions that people have in a racist society. There's a fair amount of research on this too. It's sort of residual: After you've accounted for all these things, there's still something that's not accounted for.

Some people are concerned that rich families will be able to exploit the system by buying cheap property and registering it from a different mailing address. Do you see this as a possibility?

I think people with advantages always seek to maintain their advantage and clearly turn policies toward their own advantage. They are doing that now legally through enrolling their kids in schools that prep kids to take the SAT, special intensive SAT courses, experiences that help students perform better on tests, etc.

The challenge is to monitor the use of such policies carefully to reduce that possibility. The University of California uses a holistic approach on most of its campuses to determine admissions and review applications with an eye toward similar factors [to the SAT] dashboard. Readers are trained to look for evidence that people are trying to game the system.

When SAT scores have been shown to be so dependent on family wealth and background, how can this change help at all?

What we're trying to measure is: What would that person [score] if they had had all the advantages of a really good school with really competent teachers, with a tutor to help them in areas where they weren't doing as well, with all kinds of experiences in their environment and their homes that bolster their education?

We can do that to some extent. It's especially important to do it because, in this society, we've allowed these tests to be proxies for ability. People take these things really seriously. It's not a student's ability. It's a student's ability to do a task for which they have not been equally prepared.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.