College Board's 'adversity scoring' is a hurdle for deserving students

College Board's 'adversity scoring' is a hurdle for deserving students
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In a political climate that seems unwilling to educate all students, regardless of zip code or family circumstances, to the highest levels, the College Board, maker of the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) college-admissions exam, has unveiled its latest “solution.” But to take their latest attempt seriously is to further institutionalize a system that normalizes educational inequity; it is to resign ourselves to not strive for a better solution.

In response to the strong positive correlation between SAT scores and median income, the College Board recently announced the launch of its “Environmental Context Dashboard” (ECD). The ECD, dubbed the “adversity score,” is a race-blind numerical scoring system of 1 to 100 points. It is intended to measure the adversity level that college applicants must overcome, based on the crime rate and poverty levels in their neighborhoods, their schools’ performance, and educational opportunities. Applicants who receive more than 50 points are classified as underprivileged or disadvantaged, while those who receive under 50 are determined to be privileged.


Using statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Census, according to the New York Times, the index is meant to better equip admissions officers to determine if —  given each applicant’s access to resources statistically — a student’s testing performance was a triumph or a failure.  

The use of the scoring systems has the ability to change the way that admissions officers evaluate applicants for the worse. This determination allows admissions officers to set a lower standard of excellence for applicants of certain statistical backgrounds, without performing a holistic applicant review. Additionally, similarly disadvantaged students who do not meet the adverse classification standards are more likely to be overlooked.

The College Board’s effort is unfortunately a distraction, at best. The addition of adversity scoring offers only a cosmetic solution. Assigning a statistically based impersonal score says nothing about the individual. If the applicant is homeless but the majority of her peers are not, this does not count towards the applicant’s adversity score. Will neighborhood relocation replace bribery as the latest shortcut to college admission?

In addition, the College Board, perhaps concerned about litigation risk, has decided that race need not be included as part of the test’s adversity calculation. But pretending that race does not contribute to adversity in America is willfully obtuse. On the contrary, given our history, it’s hard to claim that any “adversity” factor could be more important than race.  

Nor will the College Board’s timidity here foster a race-blind approach to college admissions; it merely removes the board from the race-based affirmative action conversation. The Common Application, the base application that the majority of colleges and universities use for admission, already asks applicants to disclose their race. The adversity score ends up being just another item subjectively reviewed as part of the admissions process.   

In an industry rife with scandal (and that’s just the past few weeks), the College Board has decided to keep the scoring system private. So, the weight of the factors that determine this score, and the final score itself, remain unknown to an applicant. This needlessly opaque approach only lends itself to abuse. The score’s inaccessibility additionally denies students the ability to understand, and potentially appeal, their scores.

As it struggles to remain relevant in the larger college admissions process, the College Board’s adversity scoring is self-promoting. More and more students are taking the rival American College Testing (ACT) exam  — 56 percent of high school graduates in 2017, as compared to 38 percent in 1995 (according to the NCES) — and college admissions officers are questioning the SAT’s continued relevance. Some, like the University of Chicago, have made standardized testing optional for admission. Thus, the adversity score is merely another product that the College Board is launching.

In short, rather than try to find innovative solutions, the College Board has doubled down on its existing approach, seemingly in order to save itself at the expense of students. Here’s hoping — and predicting — that it won’t succeed. 

Success is when all students have equal access to a good K-12 education, despite their environmental circumstances. The College Board’s creation of an adversity standard demonstrates misaligned priorities; its resources would be better served providing greater access to student preparation.

Ava Woychuk-Mlinac is the legal operations manager at Oscar Heath, a health insurance company headquartered in New York City and operating in nine states.