SAT’s New “Adversity Score” Shows the Difference Between Equality and Equity

SAT scores have long been a cultural flashpoint for anxiety about educational and economic opportunity in America. Students who can’t pay for expensive test prep services worry about how they will compete with their wealthier peers, but even wealthy students and their parents worry about the test, as shown by the recent college admissions scandal, in which parents paid to have someone falsify their children’s scores.

In response to longstanding complaints about income- and race-related score disparities, the College Board recently announced a new Environmental Context Dashboard colleges can use to contextualize students’ scores. This measure, informally called an “adversity score,” synthesizes data about students’ neighborhood, school, and family environments to help colleges and universities understand how students’ backgrounds might affect their SAT score.

Providing additional context about students’ environments could help colleges move from an equality-based admissions process to an equity-based process that considers what students can reasonably achieve, given the resources at their disposal. College admissions counselors involved in the pilot program claimed that the tool gave them additional context that helped them diversify their incoming class, and a study currently under review provides evidence to support these claims on a larger scale.

Yet some are already worrying about whether this tool will promote reverse discrimination in college admissions. As the New York Times reported, college counselors have been inundated with phone calls from parents who believe that acknowledging some students’ hardship will “negate” the hard work of their own children. Others have expressed concern about the College Board’s decision not to share adversity scores with students and have called for more information about how they are collecting data and calculating the levels of adversity students face in their college admissions journey.

I’m fully in favor of transparency about data collection and rigorous debate about the validity of the ECD. Yet many who are rushing to criticize the tool seem more concerned about its potentially harmful effects on privileged children than they do with the question of whether it will help provide greater opportunity for children who have always had to do more with less.

I believe the discomfort with this new tool stems from more than concerns about its statistical accuracy. Rather, it is disturbing to many people because it attempts to quantify a difficult truth that we already know deep in our hearts: American children do not have equitable access to high-quality educational resources.

The ECD doesn’t only identify students who face more hurdles on the road to college. It also measures the invisible privilege that helps so many students achieve college acceptances they and their parents view as purely meritocratic achievements, despite the fact that test prep companies routinely charge more than $1,000 for SAT prep courses, and private tutoring can cost well over $100/hour. The tool’s measurement of school and neighborhood contexts allows colleges to see which students have likely had 18 years of access to many educational advantages, including test prep, AP courses, extracurricular activities, and more.

Let me be clear: preparing for the SAT is not cheating, and I am not criticizing students or parents who invest time and money in preparing for college. As the CEO of a non-profit that provides test prep to students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and those who would be the first in their families to attend college, I’m a firm believer in studying for the exam and raising scores through caring instruction and diligent practice.

Despite the not-so-subtle implication that low-income students and students of color will begin to “count on” their adversity scores, rather than studying hard, I can say from experience that the students we serve at CollegeSpring want to work hard and want to prepare for college. They just haven’t been offered the same chance to do so that many of their wealthier peers have.

Notwithstanding recent debates about test-optional admissions policies, most high school students still have to take the SAT or ACT as part of their college admissions process. Yet a large percentage of these students do not have access to high-quality formal preparation for the tests. We can continue to debate the validity of the SAT, as we have been doing for decades, but as long as most students are required to take the test, all students should have a fair chance to prepare. In the absence of a level playing field, colleges should have access to information that helps them understand which students have had more help than others.

Of course, we need to go further than simply identifying students who have access to fewer resources than others. Ultimately, we should be working toward an education system in which all students have an equitable chance to prepare for college. But in the meantime, acknowledging the “leg up” some students have had for decades is an important first step. The ECD may not be a silver bullet, but it goes a long way toward making invisible privilege visible.

Yoon S. Choi., Ph.D., is CEO of CollegeSpring.