How will the SAT Adversity Score affect my applications?

May 21, 2019

The already Balkanized landscape of racial and socioeconomic considerations in higher education admissions just received a new dousing of fuel, sure to further stoke the flames of discord. In May of 2019, the College Board, the company behind the SAT, announced that in addition to receiving the traditional 1600 point SAT score, students will also now receive an “adversity score” of between 0 and 100. The average adversity score will be 50 with a higher number being indicative of greater adversity faced. The following blog will address questions on the following topics:

  • Why did the College Board create an adversity score?
  • The factors that are used to calculate the adversity score
  • Whether you can view your own adversity score
  • Will my adversity score change my SAT score?
  • How colleges will take the adversity score into account
  • Will the ACT create their own adversity score?
  • Can you manipulate the adversity score?

Let’s begin by contextualizing this with an examination of the factors within the current higher education environment that led to the creation of the new score.

Why is the College Board doing this?

Standardized test purveyors like the College Board and the ACT have, for decades, been fighting valid criticism that performance on their exams rise and fall in accordance with income levels. This has led many in the admissions field to wonder whether standardized tests are more a measure of academic ability or merely of one’s economic and family background. In response, more than 1,000 colleges nationwide have gradually adopted test-optional policies. The SAT and ACT have, in recent years, begun to offer free online tutoring platforms (Khan Academy and ACT Academy) designed to level the playing field across all income levels. The companies have also redesigned their tests in a further attempt to reduce bias. To date, these action steps have done little to quiet critics.

What factors does the adversity score include?

Notably absent from the fifteen factors is a word that is sure to be at the center of controversy—race. The College Board has yet to release a comprehensive list of factors or how they are weighted within the algorithm. David Coleman, CEO of College Board, stated on May 17 that the College Board would release this information, however, no information has been officially released to date. However, some of the factors that are known to be among those included in the formula are:

  • Median family income
  • Family stability
  • Neighborhood crime level
  • Average senior class size
  • School’s performance on AP exams
  • Poverty level of one’s neighborhood
  • Percentage of graduates at a student’s high school who go on to college
  • The percentage of students at their high school who are eligible for free and reduced lunch
Can students view their adversity score?

Right now, the answer is “no.” However, the College Board is reportedly considering making the scores viewable to test-takers. As of now, only the universities themselves can view a student’s adversity score.

Will the adversity score impact my SAT score?

Another “no” here. Headline skimmers will jump to conclusions that one’s SAT score is going to be adjusted based on your socioeconomic background. We’re already hearing such rumors making the rounds in parent communities and in high schools. Rest assured, that the adversity score is a separate metric from your actual performance on the exam.

How many colleges will use the adversity score?

For the remainder of 2019, the College Board will roll out the adversity score to more than 150 colleges with an eye toward significant expansion during the 2020 calendar year.

How will colleges use the score when making admission decisions?

The adversity score program has actually already piloted at 50 colleges and universities in the United States, allowing us to glean some early insights on this matter. Florida State University has been using the index for two years and boasted that their non-white enrollment has increased from 37% to 42% in that timespan. However, a closer examination of the data reveals a less impressive reality. We looked at FSU’s freshman demographic data from 2016-17 school year through the 2018-19 year and found that while the percentage of non-White students increased, the percentage of African American and Hispanic students actually decreased from 29.5% to 28.4%.

Duke University will use the dashboard in future admissions cycles, but made clear that factors such as GPA, rigor of coursework, standardized test scores, essays, and extracurricular achievements will still rule the day. Many other top institutions will likely incorporate the adversity score in a similar manner—using it to offer additional context to an applicant’s profile but not as a primary admissions factor.

Is the ACT going to come up with their own adversity score?

Marten Roorda, the CEO of ACT issued an immediate and decisive response, calling it “not a great idea” and stating unequivocally that his organization will not be following the College Board’s footsteps. He cited the lack of transparency surrounding the algorithm, questioned the fairness of assigning a score to individuals without their complete knowledge, and speculated that such a metric would become a target of manipulation.

Can students manipulate their score?

In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal involving two famous actresses roughly 50 other wealthy individuals, it is fair to speculate that anything that factors into admission decisions is going to be targeted for manipulation. It wouldn’t be difficult for a student to use a relative’s address who lives in a lower-income area when filling out demographic information on the SAT. Since the information is self-reported, it would also be easy to misrepresent your family’s income levels. More extreme levels of manipulation could involve wealthy or middle-class students intentionally enrolling at a disadvantaged high school to achieve both a high SAT score and adversity rating.

College Transitions’ take

While our team of counselors is always strongly in favor of increased equity and access in the admissions process, particularly for underrepresented minority/low-income/first-generation students, we are skeptical about the potential effectiveness of the adversity score index. The system opens up a new “game” for strategic parents of means to successfully manipulate. However, we also recognize that with the ongoing political/legal battle to eliminate race from the college admissions process, some type of additional intervention is needed to ensure that students who are genuinely from disadvantaged backgrounds are afforded proper access to the nation’s top colleges and universities. Perhaps with some refinement or even a full-blown reimagining, some quantitative measure of the challenges faced by high school students will emerge that can play a useful role in enhancing this extremely important and worthy mission.