For students taking the SAT, the College Board will assess 31 points of information about their community and the school, targeting U.S. Census and other data. The information will not be based on the students themselves or their families, but on the conditions, limitations and opportunities within their communities. 
Photo: AP Photo
Photo: AP Photo

SAT will now rank test-takers on disadvantages, inequalities they faced

New adversity score will weigh blight, poverty, joblessness and crime in area where teens live and attend school

The SAT began in the 1920s as an effort to even the playing field for college applicants under the belief that a laborious exam was a fair measure of a person’s mettle and merit. That was before research showed the college admissions test best revealed family advantage, which explains the 400-point gap between the wealthiest and poorest test-takers. 

(The SAT is based on a 1600-point scale with the math and reading sections scored between 200 and 800.)

It’s not that rich parents magically bestow their kids with an innate ability to nail a 770 on the math SAT. Higher income families live in communities with higher performing schools, and richer parents invest more in their children’s early education. The parents use their resources to enhance their children’s academic performance and options, from science camp in the summer to French tutors in high school to extensive SAT prep classes.

Aware of the edge that affluence brings, the College Board, the private, non-profit organization that owns the SAT, is introducing a new score, a numerical rating that gauges how much adversity and inequality applicants faced by dint of the environmental factors of where they grew up and where they attended school. 

On a scale of 1 to 100, the adversity score will not be factored into a student’s performance on the SAT, but serve as an additional piece of information that colleges can consult.  A score of 50 or more signifies a student lived in a community  with disadvantages.

Through a ranking of disadvantage levels, colleges can gain a sense of whether applicants’ attainments stand out in the context of their neighborhood and their school.

Some schools are already using the information as the College Board piloted the program with 50 campuses, including Yale.  A study found the adversity score did what the College Board hoped; it enabled colleges to uncover candidates who may have had lower-than-average SAT scores than the institution typically required, but higher-than-expected scores in light of what those kids had to overcome. 

As a result of that added information, schools made more offers of admission to low-income applicants.

So, how do you measure adversity? 

For students taking the SAT, the College Board will assess 31 points of information about their communities and their schools, targeting U.S. Census and other data. The information will not be based on the students themselves or their families, but on the conditions, limitations and opportunities within their communities as gleaned from median family income, percentage of poor households, percentage of single-parent families, percentage of vacant housing units, percentage of adults who didn’t finish high school and crime and jobless rates. 

The adversity score will not consider race, although an overlap exists between high poverty communities and students of color. With a U.S. Supreme Court presumably hostile to race-influenced admissions, the College Board wanted to create a tool for colleges to identify underrepresented minorities that was not at risk of being deemed unconstitutional.

A vocal critic of the SAT and its competitor the ACT is the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which charts the colleges that have made the admissions tests optional. 

In a statement, Robert Schaeffer, FairTest public education director, said:

Promotion of adversity scores is the latest attempt by the College Board to defend the SAT against increasingly well-documented critiques of the negative consequences of relying on admissions test results. Test-makers long claimed that their products were a common yardstick for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools. 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.

In fact, schools do not need the SAT or ACT – with or without “adversity scores” – to make high-quality, admissions decisions that promote equity and excellence. More than 1,025 accredited, bachelor-degree institutions now will evaluate all or many applicants without regard to test scores. The test-optional list includes more than half of all “Top 100” liberal arts colleges and a total of 335 schools ranked in the top tiers of their categories by U.S. News & World Report.

As The New York Times noted, there are some potential kinks to the scoring: 

The rating system potentially benefits gentrifiers on neighborhood factors, but its two-pronged approach balances that to some degree by also looking at a student’s school. Many middle-class and affluent parents living in poor neighborhoods do not send their children to local schools alongside low-income peers.

“If you’re a really well-educated, higher-income family living in a poor neighborhood, this measure is going to overstate the disadvantage you face,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University.

But, he added, “The question is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than the alternative of what colleges have had access to, to date. It sounds like this will be better than nothing.”

Among the scholars who consulted for the College Board was Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. He said he would like to see the College Board tool evolve to also include information on a student’s individual family. Still, he called the measure “an enormous step forward.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.