SAT testing company to add 'disadvantage' score to some students' exams

Chris Quintana and Erin Richards
Some colleges that use the SAT will now be able to view students' economic and social backgrounds.

The College Board is rolling out a new system that assigns SAT test-takers a score based on the environment they grew up in.

Dubbed the Environmental Context Dashboard, the score will give prospective colleges another point of information that takes into account students’ socio-economic backgrounds as well as factors like the rigor of their high schools. 

The move drew criticism and praise for its attempt to add more context to students' scores on an exam that has long been seen as catering to students from upper-class upbringing and more affluent neighborhoods. Such factors can provide advantages by allowing people to have more time and resources to prepare for the test.

Many have described the information shown on the dashboard as an “adversity score,” but David Coleman, the chief executive officer of the College Board, pushed back on that characterization.

Coleman said the aim of the new metric is to see how well students do in challenging environments.

“We're trying to shine a light on resourcefulness on students who do more with less,” Coleman said. “What is scarce is resourcefulness. It's not just that you grew up with adversity but that you did so much with it.”

The College Board says the move aims to even the playing field so that striving students from low-income backgrounds get full consideration by college admissions officers, even if their overall scores aren’t as high as those of wealthier peers.

Better to be rich than smart: 7 out of 10 wealthy kindergarten students with low test scores were affluent by age 25, study finds

The program has been in development since 2015, and it's currently being used at 50 colleges, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal. It's set to expand to 150 in the fall and then expand from there. 

The College Board will withhold the scores from the students themselves, and will allow only the universities considering applications to see the adversity index.

Jeff Thomas, a director at Kaplan Test Prep, said the new measure has potential, but much about how the score works remains unknown. 

"To that end, it remains to be seen how admissions officers will evaluate an adversity score relative to the more traditional admissions factors," Thomas said in a statement. "Suffice it to say, it won’t trump the importance of factors like GPA and SAT scores, though it may offer additional context." 

Robert Schaeffer disagrees. He is the director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy group critical of standardized tests.

Schaeffer said the latest move is proof that colleges don't need exams like the SAT when deciding which students to admit.

"Test-makers long claimed that their products were a ‘common yardstick’ for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools," Schaeffer said in a statement. "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.”

Connie Betterton, a vice president at the College Board, said the universities currently using the dashboard are a mix of private and public institutions, most of which are selective. 

The dashboard is separate from students’ academic scores on the test. And it’s calculated through weighing factors such as the poverty level or crime rate in a student's neighborhood.

The dashboard also weighs characteristics of a student's high school,  such as the average number of AP tests taken and the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. (Note: The College Board also administers AP exams.) It also shows how students performed on the SAT compared to peers in their high school.

It does not factor in students’ race. Coleman said the purpose is to measure what students have done in their academic lives. 

College administrators can also plug in a prospective student's ACT score into the dashboard, although the score from the rival test will be converted to the equivalent SAT score.

The ACT is developing its own approach to better judge the merit of students from under-served backgrounds, wrote Ed Colby, a spokesman for the company. He said, however, the company was not developing a tool similar to the SAT’s dashboard.

Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote in an email that his university will start using portions of the dashboard next year. 

Application reviewers will not have access to students’ individual disadvantage scores, but they will  be able to see the score of the  students' high school. And he wrote the score may be helpful in determining who succeeds in college and how their background plays into that.

“I certainly agree with being skeptical of any new measure until we understand what the new information tells us,” he wrote. “But if our end goal is getting students to graduation, then there can be value to be found if the adversity scale information is used to better understand the college student experience.”

Akil Bello,  a founder and former CEO of the test prep company Bell Curves, said the idea sounds good in theory, but it remains to see how effective it will be in practice. And he said the exclusion of race is actually a good thing. It gives universities the chance to “address inequities without addressing race.”

But Bello said he was unsure what the College Board was trying to do in assigning a number to students’ disadvantage. There’s a reductiveness to numbers, he said.

"This seems like a big missed opportunity to me to move the conversation away from scores, and the problems that scores create," he said.

Both the ACT and SAT have been under public pressure in recent months following the biggest-ever college admissions scandal in which Rick Singer helped students cheat on these exams to game their way into elite universities. The extent of the cheating included faking disabilities for extra time to take the test to having stand-ins take the test for the students.  

The move is also sure to draw criticism from those critical of considering race-related factors in college admissions. In one high-profile lawsuit, a group of students are claiming Harvard University's use of race in admissions is unfair to Asian Americans. Harvard has argued it doesn't discriminate against anyone.

More generally, many universities have started to reconsider requiring the use of these examsthe most prominent among them is the University of Chicago.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SAT testing company to add 'disadvantage' score to some students' exams