College admissions testing was long viewed as a great equalizer. All students could aim for a maximum 36 on the ACT or 1600 on the SAT, no matter where they grew up or went to school. Their scores functioned as a currency of merit for a nation that aspired to meritocracy.
Now, even the College Board, owner of the SAT, acknowledges that testing alone is no equalizer in a society with profound inequities of opportunity. But the testing organization’s latest response to that dilemma—the creation of a numerical rating of adversity for each student’s high school and neighborhood—has generated fierce debate.
The rating, seen by colleges but not students, is meant to give harried admissions officers a quick read on the social and economic landscape behind every application. Supporters say it delivers useful context for test scores, showing hurdles students might have faced in places unfamiliar to recruiters.
Used over the past year at 50 colleges and universities, the rating will soon expand to 150 schools and then become broadly available next year. The College Board’s disclosure of those plans in May intensified scrutiny of a perennially controversial organization in the education world.
Skeptics, including the rival ACT, say it is foolhardy to attempt to distill adversity to a single number from 1 to 100 that can add value to the review of applications. They predict devious parents will seek to manipulate numbers to help their children get into college, perhaps by faking their home addresses. And they worry about the unintended consequences of reshaping perceptions of student accomplishments.
“The idea that, ‘This is a great SAT score for someone from your neighborhood, for someone of your background’—it’s not fair to the students,” said Venkates Swaminathan, a college admissions consultant in San Francisco.
On a Facebook group for admissions counselors, Swaminathan wrote that the rating would lead to “the soft bias of low expectations.”
That echoed a famous critique of public education from the No Child Left Behind era. President George W. Bush, who signed the school accountability law in 2002, often denounced the “soft bigotry” of expectations that disadvantaged students were destined to be less proficient in reading and math than those who were better off.
The initiative comes as the College Board confronts test security challenges worldwide, major competition from the ACT, and a growing movement for test-optional admissions.
At the same time, prestigious colleges face mounting questions over the roles of race and wealth in admissions. A lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discrimination against Asian Americans could become a vehicle for the Supreme Court to reconsider race-conscious affirmative action. And federal investigators have uncovered a stunning bribery scandal that compromised the admissions process at several prominent universities. One part of the scheme, prosecutors say, facilitated cheating on the SAT and ACT; another helped applicants obtain fake credentials to pose as recruited athletes.
Now, the adversity rating is rousing passions.
Calculated separately from SAT scores, the new rating is built from data on factors that include family income, poverty, housing, educational attainment, employment, crime and the probability of college enrollment. Most of the information is public; some belongs to the College Board.
The “overall disadvantage level,” as the College Board calls it, does not reflect personal details about students or any data on race and ethnicity. A mark of 50 is average, with higher numbers reflecting more adversity and lower numbers more privilege.
“The idea is actually a pretty good one,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. “It provides additional context, and it’s race-neutral. … It’s especially good when you don’t know the high school.”
Boeckenstedt’s view was notable because his university does not require admissions tests, and he is a frequent critic of the College Board.
At most colleges with selective admissions, it is standard practice to take into account the hardships an applicant faced in life. Colleges say they do not penalize students who attend high schools with fewer advanced classes than those in affluent neighborhoods. Many say they look for applicants with grit and determination to overcome obstacles. In recent years, top private colleges and universities have also sought to expand the share of students who come from poor families.
Despite those trends, experts have found that admissions officers often overlook talent outside their usual recruiting zones. High school profiles, which tell colleges about the demographics, curriculum, grades and test scores at a school, vary widely in quality and scope. Some high schools provide colleges with little useful information.
Researchers showed in a 2017 study that when admissions officers were given consistent and detailed information about high schools, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families were more likely to get into selective colleges.
Michael Bastedo, a University of Michigan education professor who co-authored the study, said he shared his findings with the College Board.
“I thought, there’s got to be a better way,” Bastedo said. “This shouldn’t be on high schools to fix.”
At the same time, the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman, was seeking to help colleges obtain a more complete portrait of applicants. In recent years, Coleman has overseen a sweeping makeover of the SAT that aimed for more accessibility and closer ties to what schools teach. He also launched a free online test-preparation program. But Coleman wanted to do more.
So the not-for-profit, based in New York, devised an “environmental context dashboard” and began testing it with Yale University and a few other schools. The dashboard shows the adversity rating alongside information about free and reduced-price lunch subsidies, Advanced Placement test participation and the range of SAT scores from the school.
“Relying on the test alone, without context, does miss the resourcefulness that is an essential part of merit,” Coleman said. “The test alone cannot be an equalizer.”
Nearly 2 million U.S. students in the high school class of 2018 took the SAT, slightly more than the roughly 1.9 million who took the ACT.
The ACT’s chief executive, Marten Roorda, said he has no plans to launch a similar adversity rating. Roorda said he believes Coleman has “good intentions.” But the College Board’s action, he said, could tempt some people to try to use the new data to adjust SAT scores for socioeconomic circumstances. “That’s something you just don’t do,” he said in an interview.
Roorda also questioned why only colleges can see the adversity measure. “If I were a student, I would become concerned or angry if the testing company would provide an adversity score to colleges without me knowing it, without me approving it, and without any of the end users understanding how this score is calculated,” Roorda wrote on an ACT blog.
Joseph Soares, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who is a critic of admissions testing, said the College Board hasn’t demonstrated the value of the adversity rating.
“They’re flooding the world with more noise and less signal,” he said.
Coleman said the College Board is exploring how to provide more information to students and the public. “We want to share more and more of this,” he said.
Several college admissions officials who reviewed the adversity data within the last year told The Washington Post it was useful. Florida State University reported that the experiment helped it admit more underprivileged students than in years past.
“It’s about giving the disadvantaged another look,” said Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment at the University of Notre Dame and one of the early users. Bishop said many parents overestimate the role of testing. “They want to believe the score matters more than it does,” he said. But many applicants with stellar scores get rejected.
Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the data helped the university deepen its review of applications. He noted that Georgia Tech, like other prominent universities, draws a significant number of students from affluent families.
“Should a kid with a low adversity score be concerned?” Clark said. “My response to that is, not at all.”
The adversity rating is not the first systematic effort to give more context to SAT scores. In 1999, researchers at the nonprofit Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, proposed to quantify the difference between actual scores and expected scores based on analysis of family income, parental education and other factors. Those who scored 200 or more points higher than expected, under that proposal, were to have been labeled “strivers.” One version included race and ethnicity as a factor in the formula.
The idea bombed.
“We got a tremendous negative reaction,” recalled Anthony Carnevale, who was then an ETS vice president. Now director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Carnevale applauded the College Board’s new measure but said it is risky.
“David Coleman’s done a good deed, and he’s going to pay for it,” he said.•