Will SAT ‘adversity score’ help close college opportunity gap?

Administrators and experts see the value in The College Board’s access efforts but some question transparency
By: | June 5, 2019
Since Trinity University began using The College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard—which some call the SAT adversity score—leaders of the Texas liberal arts institution say they have enrolled two of its most diverse and academically accomplished classes.Since Trinity University began using The College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard—which some call the SAT adversity score—leaders of the Texas liberal arts institution say they have enrolled two of its most diverse and academically accomplished classes.

High school administrators say it’s still too early to tell if the 3-year-old “SAT adversity score” will substantially expand college access for underrepresented students.

About 50 colleges and universities—including Yale, Florida State and Trinity University in Texas—have been piloting The College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard in efforts to further diversify their campuses. The system attempts to calculate the impact of factors such as neighborhood crime, high school quality, median family income and local property values on a student’s academic performance.

“If it means students with more diverse backgrounds are going to be considered for higher ed opportunities, then that’s what we’ve always been about,” says T.J. Vari, assistant superintendent for secondary schools at the Appoquinimink School District in Delaware. “But other than that, it’s not a tool that we would be looking at.”

The dashboard considers information about a student’s high school, including senior class size, number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and number of AP exams taken, among other information, in calculating the adversity score. It also uses U.S. Census data to measure a range of factors in a student’s neighborhood environment, including unemployment and poverty rates, college-going behavior, percentage of single-parent households, and percentage of adults with high school diplomas.

None of these measures is student-specific, which means all students in the same high school or neighborhood will receive the same rating.

The simple fact that all of this information will be collected in one place will help college admissions officers develop a truer picture of a student’s achievements, says Gary Cooper, director of college readiness systems at Denver Public Schools.


Read more: SAT, ACT grades increase when K-12 districts pay for exams


“We’re open to anything that can help students have an equal playing field to access highly selective colleges and universities,” Cooper says. “Take a school that may not have the highest SAT score compared to a competitive high school, but it’s the highest-ever SAT score at that school—that shows a lot of student grit.”

Onus on higher education to boost access

Some higher ed experts have concerns about a lack of transparency. As of the time of this writing, The College Board was not planning to show students their scores—which will land on a scale of 1 to 100, with higher scores indicating more adversity.

An example of what the SAT's Environmental Context Dashboard looks like to a college admissions officer.

An example of what the SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard looks like to a college admissions officer.

“That means there’s some secrecy in how these are being calculated,” says Laura Owen, a researcher and director of the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success at American University in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to create a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration.”

Paul Rabinovitch, the supervisor of assessment and data at Appoquinimink School District, says the dashboard could overlook underprivileged students from low-income areas who attend suburban high schools with more affluent student bodies. “They might not merit them the same consideration as a student from a strictly urban population,” Rabinovitch says.

And Owens says she expects some families will try to game the dashboard. They might get their student a higher score, for instance, by moving them to a school with a larger senior class, Owen says.

Also clouding the issue is the increasing number of colleges and universities that no longer require an SAT or ACT score for admission. (The ACT, by the way, has shown no indication it will introduce its own environmental dashboard).

“I think the onus is on higher ed institutions to look at how they are contributing to, or trying to dismantle, the opportunity gap,” Owen says. “There’s acknowledgment that standardized tests have contributed in many ways to that gap, and I’m not sure this environmental context dashboard is going to have the intended consequences that they’re hoping for.”

SAT adversity index a tool among many others

Trinity University in San Antonio—one of the first 15 schools to join the initiative—began using the dashboard as it experienced a surge in applications and selectivity, says Eric Maloof, vice president for enrollment management. “We did not want diversity to be trade off or collateral damage as we became more selective.”


Read more: How K12 schools are reassessing their assessments


Trinity has enrolled two of its most diverse and academically accomplished classes in the last two years while its admission staff has used the dashboard. A higher adversity score has also led to a student getting a second look if their application was not accepted during the first review.

“The dashboard does not substitute for firsthand knowledge of an applicant or specific information conveyed by their application,” Maloof says. “It does provide an additional lens to help us identify students who have overcome significant adversity and outperformed their environment.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer