Ethical College Admissions: Context and Shortcuts

Jim Jump sees potential but also flaws in the new adversity index being offered by the College Board.

May 20, 2019

On Thursday The Wall Street Journal broke a story about the College Board’s plan to assign an “adversity score” to every student who takes the SAT. That story was subsequently reported by a number of major news outlets, culminating in College Board president David Coleman appearing on CBS This Morning on Friday. The news also generated considerable chatter within the college counseling community.

The question is whether this story is worth the attention it is receiving. Is this earth-shattering news that portends a major change to the college admissions process? Would this story get nearly as much play if it did not come in the shadow of the lawsuit against Harvard University and the Operation Varsity Blues scandal? And how much of the concern within the profession is a function of persistent cynicism about the motives and direction of the College Board?

The news coverage was not in response to any announcement by the College Board of a new initiative, and the terms “adversity score” or “adversity index” do not come from the CB. The program in question is something that the College Board has been working on for several years called the Environmental Context Dashboard (a title not nearly as sexy or ear-catching as “adversity score”).

The Environmental Context Dashboard is designed to help put a student’s test scores in context by providing information about the school and community a student comes from. It has been in development for several years, and has been beta tested at 50 colleges in the past year. The plan is to expand to 150 colleges in the next year.

The information from the dashboard is not student specific. It doesn’t demonstrate that a student has overcome adversity, and types of adversity such as major illness for the student or the death of a loved one would not be picked up by the dashboard. Instead, it provides neighborhood and school context based on census information and data owned by the College Board.

How does it work? The Environmental Context Dashboard will not be part of a student score report (although some have questioned whether it should be). Colleges will be able to access data about the student’s school, including senior class size, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, SAT scores for the previous three years by quartile, and the average freshman SAT score at the colleges attended by graduates of the school.

The dashboard will also factor in the school’s performance in the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, including the number of different AP exams the school offers, the percentage of seniors taking at least one AP exam, the average AP exam score and the average number of AP exams per student. If you suspect that the inclusion of all those AP data points is designed to subtly encourage greater AP participation, you’re not alone.

The Environmental Context Dashboard will also provide a “disadvantage score” on a scale of one to 100 for both the high school attended and the zip code lived in in the following categories:

  • College attendance -- the relative likelihood that high school seniors will attend a four-year college.
  • Family stability -- based on number of intact families, single-parent families and children living below the poverty line.
  • Median family income.
  • Housing stability -- based on vacancy rates, housing turnover and the balance of rental and home ownership.
  • Educational level -- the educational attainment of young adults.
  • Crime -- the likelihood of being a victim of a crime.

We can certainly debate whether these are the right criteria, and it is too early to know how colleges will use this information, but we can draw a couple of conclusions.

The best part of this initiative is its recognition that SAT scores require context. Standardized testing has always been part of the philosophical debate about nature versus nurture. The SAT was originally designed to be an “objective” measure of ability to distinguish native intelligence from academic preparation or economic privilege, and there are still those who worship standardized testing and fail to recognize that a student’s scores correlate strongly with a family’s economic circumstances and educational background.

Two identical scores don’t carry the same meaning if one student has spent $1,000 for test prep and the other is taking the test straight up, or if one student attends a school with a strong college-going culture and the other an underresourced inner-city or rural school. I applaud the College Board for recognizing the importance of context, although it also feels somewhat similar to when the CB moved from claiming that test prep was useless to promoting “test prep from the test providers.”

The biggest flaw in the Environmental Context Dashboard is the attempt to synthesize complex data into a single number, hence the “adversity score.” The College Board has thus far not provided any transparency about how the score is calculated or how the various factors will be weighted, but the very attempt to give a score on a one-to-100 scale is a mistake. It is not unlike U.S. News & World Report condensing complex input and output data into a simplistic ranking. On that note, what are the odds that U.S. News won’t want to factor each college or university’s institutional “adversity score” into the rankings?

Any score removes professional analysis and judgment from a process that should be holistic and humanistic. Admission officers should evaluate every student’s application in the context of his or her background and life experience. The dashboard provides lots of context, and a single score removes that context and substitutes a shortcut. It may be that admission officers don’t have the time or the training to pay attention to context, but that’s a larger issue. Taking shortcuts in reading applications doesn’t make for better decisions, if that is in fact what we care about.

Then there is the larger question of what the ultimate goal is for the Environmental Context Dashboard. Clearly part of the motivation is the competition with ACT for market share. Does this give SAT a competitive advantage? Perhaps, but ACT is apparently developing a similar product.

Or is this not about adversity but rather diversity? Is this an attempt to develop a tool to address institutional adversity in the event that the Supreme Court throws out the use of race in admission? The dashboard ostensibly is a tool for those who believe that colleges should be concerned with economic diversity rather than racial diversity, but it might be a tool for both.

Is the Environmental Context Dashboard worthy of the attention it has received? It’s too early to tell. We certainly need more context in admission decisions, and we certainly need fewer shortcuts.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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