Will SAT’s “adversity score” level the playing field for who gets admitted to college?

FSU campus, aerial view, 1969. Photo by David Fountain; State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

By now, kids, families and others who follow college entrance exams and college admissions may have seen a new and controversial concept related to the College Board’s SAT.

It’s a tool called the “Environmental Context Dashboard,” or what’s being referred to as an “adversity score” designed to help admissions officers determine who gets admitted or rejected at colleges and universities around the country.

The score includes data about a student’s neighborhood and high school, according to the College Board, which will “provide a more comprehensive view of the applicant.”

The factors for neighborhoods include family income, crime and educational attainment. The factors for high schools include whether kids have access to rigorous Advanced Placement courses (those are offered by the College Board); average AP scores at high schools, the senior class size and the type of school, such as rural and urban.

The scores aren’t individualized, meaning all students at a particular high school, for example, would have the same score because of the data points involved.

The New York-based College Board, best known for the SAT college entrance exam and AP classes, has piloted the adversity score program for three years, though it has been publicized widely just recently.

As of right now, parents and students don’t get to see the adversity scores provided to colleges, but that may change.

The colleges and universities that have participated in the pilots have said that the data “allowed us to rely less on stereotypes, assumptions, or incomplete data and more on hard facts and statistics,” according to the College Board.

It’s not new that some kids live in affluent areas and attend high-performing high schools, but other students live in crime-ridden communities and attend struggling high schools. Some students write college-admissions essays about their ability to overcome bleak experiences.

College admissions officials already know this, said John Barnhill, associate vice president for enrollment management at Florida State University. FSU is the only school in Florida that has piloted the College Board’s adversity score, Barnhill said.

“I think that if you certainly go back in history, most colleges have been concerned about obstacles that kids have faced. I think the prevailing wisdom is that a student who has had struggles and overcame them — that resilience — is a factor that many schools like to see in their students.”

The difference now is that the adversity tool can provide data on neighborhood conditions and the high school atmosphere. Barnhill said FSU launched the pilot in connection with a summer program two years ago and has since expanded use of the tool for admissions.

Barnhill said the adversity score goes from 0 to 100, “and the higher score, the more adversity the students has faced. So you essentially have all this info, but also that scale that reflects what the context is.”

The adversity score is still one factor in admissions, Barnhill said. Students will still need to have good grades and extracurricular activities, leadership qualities and other factors that help in the admissions process.



Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.


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