Recent changes to the way the SAT presents student information have critics concerned about the misuse of data in college admissions. The College Board, the organization responsible for administrating the SAT, the PSAT, and Advanced Placement tests, released more detailed information last week on its new Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD). One of the three components of the ECD, the so-called “adversity score,” has come under fire for its “overall disadvantage level,” a 1–100 scale that purports to estimate how disadvantaged an SAT test taker is.
The College Board implemented the new measure to help schools assess students and to increase the credibility of the SAT, which is no longer mandatory at more than 1,000 institutions across the country. Many who oppose affirmative action claim the ECD acts as a Trojan horse for racially influenced admissions.
“Advocates of this change claim that it is not about race. That is a fiction,” Heather MacDonald wrote for the conservative Manhattan Institute.
Other critics argue that the new score attempts to quantify being “disadvantaged”—an impossible task.
“The dehumanizing message of the new adversity index is that America’s young people are nothing but interchangeable sociological points of data—and the jagged complexity of an individual life somehow can be sanded down, quantified, and fairly contrasted,” Thomas Chatterton Williams, a fellow at the liberal think tank New America, wrote in The New York Times.
The College Board responded to the criticism by claiming that the ECD is just a better way of doing what colleges already do.
“This is not an ‘adversity score,’” College Board CEO David Coleman said. “Nor is it a radical new approach. For decades, admissions officers have been searching for kids who overcome challenges, who have the drive to succeed that can’t be summed up in a test score.”
Coleman is right about one thing: The attempt to incorporate hardship into college admissions is nothing new. The disadvantage level analyzes students’ background in two main areas: neighborhood and high school. It takes into account factors such as median family income, percentage of single-parent families, the unemployment rate, and the crime rate. All of that information is already available to schools in pieces, but the College Board often requires colleges and universities to pay a fee to gain access to it.
None of these factors, however, provide information about the individual student’s family or situation. Instead, they give an idea of the overall environment, opening the door to generalization. Students coming from areas with stable, high-income families get lower overall scores, and students coming from areas with single-parent, low-income families would get higher scores. This puts colleges in a bind because if they use the ECD as a significant factor in admission, families of students in low-scoring regions have incentive to move to areas with higher scores to increase their chances.
Using hard factors like SAT scores and GPAs in admissions decisions makes sense, since colleges want students who will excel. In the past few decades, the influence of soft factors like socioeconomic background have grown, but any attempt to quantify societal measures will run into difficulties.
“My hope is the ECD will improve access for disadvantaged students,” tweeted Kristen Glasener, one of the researchers who worked on developing the program. “My fear is the ECD will be misused or abused.”