When students send colleges their SAT scores in coming years, the admissions office will also get another number that rates the level of adversity applicants typically face – or privilege they enjoy – based on crime and poverty data and other demographic information about neighborhoods and high schools.

The “overall disadvantage level,” known in admission circles as the “adversity score,” will be a single number from 1 to 100. With 50 set as the average, under a formula established by the College Board, higher scores will indicate higher adversity. Colleges will see the number on a template called an “environmental context dashboard.”

Students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., take college entrance exams. Associated Press/The College Board

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that owns the SAT, is developing the program as its flagship test faces significant skepticism over breaches in test security and the value of the scores.

The adversity score, which officials described Thursday, will focus on social and economic factors associated with a student’s school and neighborhood, such as median family income, crime reports, housing circumstances, college attendance rates and parental education, according to the College Board. The formula does not consider race, the College Board said, or individual data about a student’s family or financial circumstances.

The idea is to give admissions officers a deeper framework for considering SAT scores than the information high schools typically provide. A score of 1400, out of a maximum 1600, might look more impressive coming from a student with a higher adversity score compared with a peer who comes from relative privilege.

“The insight is in the judgment of the admissions office: ‘Wow, this score, given this context, that’s something I want to see,’ ” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board.

Admission testing, always controversial, is drawing fresh scrutiny this year. Federal investigators recently uncovered a cheating and bribery scandal that includes sensational allegations of wealthy parents buying fraudulent SAT or ACT scores for their children. A movement to establish test-optional admissions among colleges has gained steam as critics have asked why grades are not a good enough indicator of academic potential.

But testing is an enduring ritual in competitive college admissions.

Fifty colleges and universities tested the dashboard in the most recent admissions cycle. The College Board said Thursday it plans to expand the program in the coming year and make it broadly available starting in 2020. Coleman has promoted the dashboard in recent months. The Wall Street Journal reported new details on the initiative Thursday.

For decades, critics of standardized testing have pointed out correlations between SAT scores and family income. More affluent students tend to score higher on the admission test.

Critics say high school grades are a stronger measure of potential, an argument that has led a growing number of colleges to stop requiring applicants to submit scores from the SAT or the rival ACT admission test. Among the latest are Indiana State University and the University of New Hampshire.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of the College Board, said the adversity score is a ploy to defend the SAT against “well-documented critiques” of the harm caused by relying too much on admission tests.

“Test-makers long claimed that their products were a ‘common yardstick’ for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools,” Schaeffer said in a statement. “This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of ‘accumulated advantage’ which should not be used without an understanding of a student’s community and family background.”

A large majority of the most selective colleges and universities, public and private, continue to require admission test scores.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, said he likes the idea of the dashboard and plans soon to use it. Duke is one of the most competitive schools in the country, and it requires applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score.

“Everyone familiar with the college admissions process understands that it’s not a level playing field,” Guttentag wrote in an email. “We’re always trying to understand each applicant’s context a little better, and I think this tool will be a positive step in that direction.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.