Support independent, student-run journalism.

Your support helps give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to conduct meaningful reporting on important issues at Stanford. All contributions are tax-deductible.

SAT adversity score piloted by Stanford for Class of 2023 is flawed, Bay Area students say

By

Without publicizing its involvement, Stanford quietly added the adversity score — designed to contextualize applicants’ SAT scores with their socioeconomic backgrounds — to its admissions process for the Class of 2023. The Daily talked to some Bay Area high schoolers to see how upcoming college applicants view the score, and the reviews aren’t all positive.

The adversity score forms the heart of the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard, “a new admissions tool that allows colleges to incorporate context into their admissions process in a data-driven, consistent way.” It’s also part of a broader debate about the merits of the SAT and standardized testing as a whole — as students, parents, teachers and colleges wonder whether such tests, designed to measure students’ scholastic achievement, are instead a better metric of whether they can afford expensive test prep classes. 

The adversity score explained

Officially known as the “Overall Disadvantage Level” by the College Board, the adversity score evaluates the economic and social hardships that examinees have faced on a scale from one to 100. While a score of 50 denotes adversity equal to the national average among high school students, scores above 50 indicate higher adversity, and scores below 50 indicate higher privilege. 

The College Board calculates the Disadvantage Level by accounting for 31 different factors about a student’s neighborhood, high school environment and family life. These factors include poverty and crime rates, housing values, AP classes offered, family income, parents’ education and the percentage of students qualifying for free lunch at their high school. 

It does not include information on students’ race or ethnic backgrounds. In contrast to the initial reporting from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the adversity score will not take whether test-takers are English-language learners into account. Only information taken from the U.S. Census, the National Center for Education Statistics and aggregated College Board data will be part of the Environmental Context Dashboard.

Though college admissions offices will be able to view the applicants’ adversity scores, the applicants themselves cannot. That said, colleges have a choice whether or not to use the adversity score. 

The Dashboard has been piloted with colleges and universities over the past three years. Most recently, 50 schools, including Stanford and ranging from Ivy League schools to public universities, tested this new program in their admissions processes last year. The Stanford admissions office used the information in the Environmental Context Dashboard, including the adversity score, to inform admissions decisions for the Class of 2023.

“Stanford has traditionally taken a holistic approach to reviewing applicants for admission and looks at a range of factors, including an applicant’s academic background, life experience, educational context and other personal characteristics,” wrote Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda in an email to The Daily.

Yale University was another of the pilot program participants. Jeremiah Quinlan, the school’s dean of undergraduate admissions, informed WSJ that Yale has nearly doubled the number of first-generation and/or low-income students to about 20% of new students.

“This (adversity score) is literally affecting every application we look at,” Quinlan told WSJ. “It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”

The College Board will be expanding the Dashboard to 150 colleges later this year and make it widely available to colleges by 2020. 

Reactions to the score

Students who have already taken the SAT or are planning to take it have mixed feelings about the new measurement.

Joy Halvorsen, an incoming freshman at UC Berkeley, has a hopeful outlook on the possible benefits resulting from the new score. 

“As of now, standardized testing is shown to be positively correlated with family income, which may be because students going through adversity do not have as many resources to prepare for these tests,” Halvorsen said. “The College Board’s decision may provide those who lie on the lower end of the financial spectrum a more equal opportunity to succeed, which would help close the socioeconomic gap.”

However, not everyone has this optimistic view. Carolyn Qian, a rising senior at Mission San Jose High School (MSJ), is doubtful of the score’s effectiveness. 

MSJ is ranked in the top 100 high schools in the country and located in an affluent neighborhood, meaning many of the school’s students would tend to score at the privileged end of the College Board’s adversity scale. However, this isn’t an accurate representation for a small but significant portion of MSJ students, whose lower-income parents choose to live in increasingly expensive neighborhoods in order to send their children to MSJ. These students — about 4% of the school’s population — would have artificially low scores on the College Board’s scale, even if it doesn’t reflect their actual living circumstances. Their attendance of MSJ doesn’t guarantee that they can afford to pay for SAT preparatory classes that can run from $1,000 to $4,000               

“The SAT adversity score is of good intent but it has too many flaws that let many underprivileged people fall through the cracks,” Qian said. “For example, at MSJ, there is a slew of name-brand preparatory classes (for the SAT, ACT, and AP classes) that every other student is put through. The students who are from low-income families don’t receive these extra educational resources, putting them at a relative disadvantage. With the SAT adversity score, it only makes this disadvantage worse.”                                          

The adversity score doesn’t take a student’s income into account. It takes their neighborhood’s average income into account, as well as MSJ’s average SAT Score (1440 out of 1600). If one’s family has a low income and can’t afford to take the classes like others do to get very high SAT scores, it reflects badly, since the neighborhood is good and the SAT score of the school is very high.                                          

“There are so many other factors that are considered during college admissions that a single adversity score will never be able to even things out,” said Amber Lee, a rising senior at MSJ.

“Determining a student’s strength based on the address of their high school does not tell the whole story,” Lee added. “Even if their schools sit in higher-income neighborhoods, students may still face other challenges, including being in foster care or learning disabilities.”

Instead, Lee believes that college essays — already a staple of most schools’ applications — are a better way for schools to get an idea of their prospective students’ adversities.

“Students’ adversities would be much better represented by college essays, where people have the chance to describe their situation and give admissions a more accurate picture of what they’ve gone through,” Lee said. 

Contact Saisha Hongal at saisha2115 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Saisha was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.