The College Board, the company that administers the SAT exam taken by about 2 million students a year, will for the first time assess students not just on their math and verbal skills, but also on their educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, entering a fraught battle over the fairness of high-stakes testing.
The company announced Thursday that it will include a new rating, which is widely being referred to as an “adversity score,” of between 1 and 100 on students’ test results. An average score is 50, and higher numbers mean more disadvantage. The score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood.
The rating will not affect students’ test scores, and will be reported only to college admissions officials as part of a larger package of data on each test taker.
The new measurement brings the College Board squarely into the raging national debate over fairness and merit in college admissions, one fueled by enduring court clashes on affirmative action, a federal investigation into a sprawling admissions cheating ring and a booming college preparatory industry that promises results to those who can pay.
Colleges have long tried to bring diversity of all sorts to their student bodies, and they have raised concerns over whether the SAT, once seen as a test of merit, can be gamed by families who hire expensive consultants and tutors. Higher scores have been found to correlate with students from wealthier families and those with better-educated parents.
“Merit is all about resourcefulness,” David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, said in an interview Thursday. “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given. It helps colleges see students who may not have scored as high, but when you look at the environment that they have emerged from, it is amazing.”
A growing number of colleges, in response to criticism of standardized tests, have made it optional for applicants to submit scores from the SAT or the ACT. Admissions officers have also tried for years to find ways to gauge the hardships that students have had to overcome, and to predict which students will do well in college despite lower test scores.
The new adversity score is meant to be one such gauge. It is part of a larger rating system called the Environmental Context Dashboard that the College Board will include in test results it reports to schools. A trial version of the tool has already been field-tested by 50 colleges. The plan to roll it out officially, to 150 schools this year and more widely in 2020, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
But the score met instantly with an array of criticisms, from worries that it created a new cast of winners and losers in the admissions process, to concerns that it papered over an inherently flawed test.
College counselors said they were swamped with calls from parents Thursday as word of the new measurement got out.
“Anxiety’s ratcheting up,” said Hafeez Lakhani, a college admissions coach in New York. “People are worried about never being good enough.”
He said he had received e-mails from parents asking whether their children’s hard work in preparing for the SAT “would be completely negated just because we happen to have some means.”
Others felt that the College Board’s efforts were misplaced. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a group that is critical of standardized testing, said that if the SAT needed a sophisticated contextual framework to make it valid, then “it’s a concession that it’s not a good test.”
He added that the adversity score would not capture individual situations, like a child who was middle class but whose mother was addicted to opioids. “Mentally adjusting scores based on where a student came from and what obstacles she overcame is common practice,” Schaeffer said. “It’s this attempt to do it in a quantitative manner that opens up many other issues.”