The College Board’s New “Adversity Score”

What Is It, and Will It Change Things?

The College Board’s New “Adversity Score”

UPDATE: The College Board has offered more details about the data here.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal was the first to cover the College Board’s new initiative to provide additional environmental context to colleges along with students’ SAT scores. Since then, many more media outlets have picked up the story. As we usually find with stories like this, there are already a lot of sensational, misleading headlines out there. At Private Prep, we’re here to help you understand what this actually means and what we know so far.

So this “adversity score” thing. What is it?

First, it’s important to note that “adversity score,” the term being used most widely in media coverage, is not, in fact, what the College Board itself calls it. Rather, the College Board shared that it has created an Environmental Context Dashboard, to which colleges will have access along with students’ test scores. This dashboard will aggregate data about 15 factors that could impact the academic experience — median income and crime rate of the student’s zip code for example  — and use that to create a score from 0 to 100, with above a 50 meaning the student has faced higher (educational) adversity, and below a 50 being lower. Individual information (race, family income) will not be used in the formula, and we do not know how each of the 15 metrics are being weighted.

Why did they make this?

There are several potential answers to this question. The surface-level answer is that it’s an effort to address inequality as manifested in the standardized testing and college admissions process, and to quantify some of the factors that can make it more difficult for students to score well on the test. This provides more context to admissions officers who are reviewing applications; the idea is that they would view scores coming from a certain environmental context, i.e. a low-income community, differently than they would from another, higher-income area (and indeed, most admissions offices at selective universities that practice holistic review already do so — this is, in theory, simply a way to make that easier). The more cynical answer is that, in a time when more and more schools are going test-optional, the College Board is making an effort to remain not just relevant, but indispensable to the college admissions landscape. Of course, the answer can be both!

Who is using it?

Last year, 50 colleges beta tested the tool, and this year, the College Board expects 150 colleges to opt-in, with a larger rollout the year after. While we do not yet know the full list, we expect it includes many selective colleges and universities that practice holistic admissions.

Is it going to change things?

We don’t know. It’s such a new tool that we cannot yet say to what extent it will be used. Few colleges are on record talking about this so far, and the comments have been mixed. For example, we do know that Yale University used the tool for the past two years, and Jeremiah Quinlan, the Dean of Admissions, is quoted in the original WSJ article saying that Yale found it helpful in increasing their number of first-generation students. In contrast, Georgetown’s longtime dean, Charles A. Deacon, questioned the tool’s usefulness, and told the Washington Post, “I still see college admissions as ‘an art, not a science’ so I’m prone to resist quantifying things too much.”

But it’s important to take a step back and remember that colleges were already considering this type of information. While this may make it easier for some colleges to do so quickly, it has long been the practice of admissions offices that use holistic admissions review — which is typical of selective and highly selective institutions — to consider the socioeconomic and educational context when reviewing applications. It is, of course, impossible to quantify the human experience, and no matter what, this won’t do that; this data point will not replace the many other factors admissions officers are considering, from the high school students attend to their extracurricular interests to their family responsibilities.

At this point, there are still too many unanswered questions for us to know how, if at all, this will affect the admissions landscape.

What are the takeaways for Private Prep families?

In the hyper-competitive, hyper-stressful college admissions landscape, sometimes it can feel impossible for students not to compare themselves to everybody else, and news like this can add to the frenzy. But we encourage all of our students to exhale, and remember two things: first, all you can do is challenge yourself within your own context, and two, there is a college that is a great fit for every student at every level. Our job, as an organization, is to help you be the best version of yourself and to help you find the place where you will thrive. A new data point in a long, complicated process is not going to change that.

We are always here to help you navigate this process. If you need help or have any questions please contact us.