Are 'adversity scores' for the SAT the right way to go?
The SAT recently announced a new scoring system that takes students' socioeconomic background into consideration. Source: Shutterstock

Last month, it was reported that ‘adversity scores’ will be added to SAT scores to level the playing field and give certain students a better chance of getting accepted into college.

An adversity score is a measurement of one’s socio-economic status. Only college admissions officers can see this score and it is not available to students or their families.

According to TheSetonian, “This new score comes following increased scandals surrounding the college admission process. After actresses Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman were indicted in federal court for their involvement in an extensive college admission scam, many parents and students were left outraged at the ease students of a wealthier background have in obtaining college admission.”

According to the official SAT website College Board, the term ‘adversity score’ is actually incorrect, although it is widely used.

It states, “Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) is a new admissions tool that allows colleges to incorporate a student’s school and environmental context into their admissions process in a data-driven, consistent way. The Dashboard includes contextual data on the student’s neighborhood and high school.”

“Some media reports have referred to an “adversity score.” That term is inaccurate, because that’s not what the Dashboard does.”

How does it work?

Scores are assigned based on factors related to a student’s neighbourhood, high school and family environments.

From the student’s neighbourhood environment, data such as crime, poverty and vacancy rates are factored into the score. In the high school environment, admissions officers will look into whether a student receives free or reduced-price lunches, among other factors.

Income, education level and the marital status of the student’s parents are factors that fall under the family environment.

All these are put into a black box where a number will be determined, ranging from 1 to 100. Fifty represents ‘average adversity’, and the higher the score, the more the student is deemed to be suffering hardship in their lives.

The problem

Despite its good intentions, it appears that the adversity scoring system is receiving its own form of adversity. The announcement was met with backlash due to certain factors, such as race, not being included.

It has also caused controversy because of the way it’s being implemented, with some calling it an unfair way of measuring applicants ‘adversity scores’.

The algorithm can miss certain important factors. For example, it assigns more ‘points’ to those who live in lower-income neighbourhoods.

There are those who are from working-class families who have managed to save up enough for a house in a better school district, but that doesn’t mean they don’t face adversity and hardship.

According to Forbes, “On the surface, the new policy is a major concession to the obvious, nasty correlation between impressive scores and affluence and other privileges. As such, it’s a probably a good, right-hearted idea and few would argue that knowing more about a student is a bad idea.”

The article also stated that factors such as neighborhood crime rate, neighborhood poverty rate and high school performance are not serious indicators for a student’s actual circumstances.

The TIME reported that the score misrepresents reality by omitting race.

“Differences in the life experiences of white and African-American children — even children who live in the same neighborhood and attend the same school — start early. African-American children are 3.6 times more likely than white students to be suspended from pre-school — a disparity that, according to Yale researchers, is linked to implicit bias among early childhood educators.”

The silver lining

Ricard D Kahlenberg wrote on The Atlantic that an imperfect adversity score could be better than no score at all, as it does address the difficulty that so many students face when applying to college.

“I have studied aspects of college admissions for decades. While the adversity measure was in development, I myself attended four meetings at the College Board to discuss the concept.”I recommended, based on extensive research, that socioeconomic disadvantage be included at the family, neighborhood, and school levels. The College Board ended up using only the last two of the three.

“Nevertheless, even an imperfect adversity score is better than failing to account for the difficulty so many students overcome. Research from Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University has found that the most disadvantaged students, on average, score a whopping 784 points lower on the SAT (out of a possible 1600) than the most advantaged.”

Although the new admissions tool has not curried general favour, it has sparked debate and discussion over racist systems and prejudiced practices in college admissions, with some calling for the entire SAT to be dumped.

It has sparked conversation, just like the recent admissions scandal has done, over merit and fairness in college admissions. The implementation of the ECD is a reflection of this, and despite its flaws, hopefully, it will lead to fairer outcomes with some adjustments.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), told TIME, ” Any context we can provide for students’ quantitative scores is going to be helpful. This is something admissions officers have talked about for quite some time.

He also added that “although there will be kinks to work out in the coming years, the program is a step in the right direction.”

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