Why the SAT's New "Adversity Score" Still Doesn't Solve the Problem

Some advocates and experts think the College Board’s new “adversity score” might just be another number that can’t possibly show the full picture.
Here's Why the New Adversity Score with the SAT Still Doesn't Solve the Problem

The College Board is trying to address one of the main criticisms of the SAT: that it reduces a college applicant to a simple number — calculated proficiency in reading, writing and math — which could define their entire future.

But some advocates and experts think the board’s new “adversity score” might just be another number that can’t possibly show the full picture.

The College Board, which oversees SAT testing, rolled out the new metric on Thursday, saying it’s meant to measure things in the student’s environment that might’ve gotten in the way of their education and subsequent standardized test score.


For example, the new score calculates local poverty rates and crime surrounding an applicant’s high school, among 13 other factors weighing background and upbringing, like local rates of free or reduced lunch, housing stability and educational attainment. It’s just one of the many ways the test has changed to match a changing student population and curriculum since it was introduced in 1926.

The score range is 1 to 100, with 50 being an average. A number below 50 shows significant hardship, a number above that threshold denotes privilege. So, for instance, a student might have a lower adversity score coupled with an above-average SAT test score, providing necessary context and making their higher score look all the more impressive.

But that still puts a student’s decent SAT score front and center, and might not be enough to offset a truly abysmal test score. The score also doesn’t consider race, ethnicity or a family’s individual circumstance. And the metric doesn’t solve the overwhelming argument against the SAT in general: that it’s too focused on achieving a test-based number that doesn’t actually display a full range of ability. Speaking to NPR, Todd Rose at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, compared the overall aim of the SAT to the debunked science of phrenology.

“It's phrenology, but we've added an adversity score to it. And you're like, yeah, that doesn't really change the underlying problem"


“It's phrenology, but we've added an adversity score to it. And you're like, yeah, that doesn't really change the underlying problem, that bumps on your head don't correspond to ability,” Rose said.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why now?

To back up a bit, the past couple of months haven’t been great for the administrators of standardized tests.

In what’s become known as the college admissions scandal — or “Operation Varsity Blues,” as the Federal Bureau of Investigations dubbed their probe — 50 people were accused in March of gaming the admissions process at elite American universities. The accused were primarily wealthy parents who fudged their kids’ SAT scores or athletic abilities to give them an edge. This week, the actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to have someone correct her daughter’s SAT test answers.

Bribes aside, rich and privileged kids have broad advantages that help them get higher test scores, like the ability to purchase private tutors and multiple rounds of re-testing, and that’s come under renewed scrutiny through the lens of Operation Varsity Blues. A household income of at least $200,000 can translate to an extra 250 points on the SAT, on average, when compared to students whose household incomes are less than $20,000, according to the Journal.

In part, that’s why some schools are adopting “test-optional” policies for their applicants. Last June, the University of Chicago — one of the most selective colleges in the country — dropped SAT and ACT scores to diversify its freshman class.


“Testing is not the be-all and end-all,” James G. Nondorf, the university’s dean of admissions and financial aid, told the Washington Post in June.

The new metric will primarily assist students on the borderline of acceptance, according to NPR — when a test score is good but admittance is still a close call.

Why it matters

Still, even as standardized testing falters, it’s a critical part of the college admissions process. More than 2 million kids took the SAT last year, according to the College Board. And this new score shows a good-faith effort to focus on diversity in college admissions.

“There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more,” David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, told the Wall Street Journal. “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”

The score will roll out across 150 institutions as part of a beta test this fall, before expanding more widely in 2020. Already, the program has been piloted at 50 institutions to some success, and it was carefully tested over several years, according to Inside Higher Ed. It helped lift nonwhite enrollment at Florida State University.

“This [adversity score] is literally affecting every application we look at,” Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, told the Wall Street Journal. His school has made low-income and first-generation students nearly 20 percent of their recently admitted students since implementing the score several years ago. “It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”

But, because of its lack of focus on race and increased focus on social class, the College Board’s announced metric has received criticism from both sides of the political aisle. As one Twitter user put it: “This is cool n all but we could just get rid of the SAT requirement altogether and save people valuable time and money, just sayin.”…

“This is simply identity politics run amok,” Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy expert at the Heritage Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, told Fox News on Friday. Conservatives have criticized the College Board for not revealing exactly how it will calculate the new metric, and hiding the score from students.