The College Board’s New Adversity Score: What You Need to Know

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“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” – The Wizard of Oz

As soon as their phones began buzzing with push notifications, my friends started forwarding me stories about the “new” SAT adversity score. What is the College Board doing? What does this score mean? Why is it secret?

Within hours of the original Wall Street Journal article reporting the expansion of the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard program, the internet was bursting with blogs and articles asking questions, imagining answers, and, ironically, seeking more context. 

The college process is tough enough to understand, many authors and pundits agreed. Almost as one, they seemed to ask in the next breath, is this a peek of how things work behind the curtain? What does all this mean? 

The answer, for applicants at least, is that the new adversity score likely means very little. It might mean something for the College Board itself, but more on that later. 

Applying to college is a pretty self-focused activity. Students are asked to dig deep, share personal stories of growth, failure, challenge, and triumph. You’re asked to envision your life for the next four years, determining where you want to learn and grow, and also sleep and do laundry. Sometimes those decisions feel so big that we lose all sense of perspective. Every single part of the process feels filled with both significance and mystery. The potential of a secret score purportedly quantifying the level of hardship in your life feels wildly unfair. 

Lest anyone panic, let’s take a step back and think about what we know of how the adversity score is developed and how it is likely to be used. 

As the online Common App gained momentum, students found themselves applying to more colleges farther and farther away from home, so colleges increased demand for a seemingly objective tool for comparison. Standardized tests are designed to provide that tool. The College Board, the nonprofit entity that administers the SAT and AP exams, has long been under scrutiny for failing to account for a diversity of learners in its test development. While the testing giant markets an apples-to-apples comparison of student aptitude, researchers have identified a variety of ways that bias cannot be eliminated and aptitude cannot be objectively measured.

Enter the Environmental Context Dashboard. First released to a select number of schools in 2017, the College Board designed the dashboard as a quick way to show admissions professionals what environmental factors might contribute to a score for a given student. In other words. an admissions officer may not know the name of your school, but they do want to understand the context of your grades and scores. In the first year, 15 colleges tested the dashboard. During the recent admissions cycle, 50 schools used the tool. Next year, it looks like 150 schools will be looking at the dashboard for a shorthand sense of the demographics of your school and neighborhood.

How the score is determined is not fully clear. According to reports, what we do know is that the College Board is relying on publicly available data such as census information, property values, and crime statistics to calculate what they are calling an “overall disadvantage level.” Admissions officers will see this score, along with other information, when they access a student’s SAT score. Students will not see their “overall disadvantage level’ score,” probably because these scores are tied to a school or neighborhood context rather than an individual student’s performance. 

For all the words already written about the College Board adversity score – this article included – the strong likelihood is that very little will change about how your individual application is evaluated. 

My colleague called the announcement about the expansion of the dashboard interesting information but ultimately unremarkable for individual students – especially in the DMV. When you apply to college from a college in a busy metropolitan area, most admissions professionals already have a sense of your context. And they were already using that information.

Admissions professionals are faced with the complex task of evaluating human potential quickly and from afar. In our age of big data, many entities –schools, nonprofits, consultants, etc. – are trying to quantify as much as information as is feasible, as numbers are easier to compare than qualitative data. But this field is still developing and the public does not always know exactly how it works. The primary thing indicated by news of the dashboard is that the College Board wants to be a central player in that conversation. Discussing the dashboard publicly lifts the curtain a bit, but it does not actually provide new insight into what we already know. 

We already know that colleges are trying to see the full academic, social, and developmental potential of each applicant. They are likely testing many tools and strategies to refine their methods of getting closer to an accurate assessment of that potential. The most important thing that you can do is show them what you have already accomplished, as evidence of what you can then go on to accomplish in the future. 

Just like when Toto exposed the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, the bottom line to this story is that what’s happening behind the curtain does not matter nearly as much as what is happening in the minds and hearts of students on front end of the admissions process.

Just like the Lion, students can be courageous entirely on their own. Use your courage to reflect on hard moments to write a powerful essay or put in extra study hours for a challenging and engaging class.

Just like the Tin Man, students show their heart by serving others. Volunteer your time, lead your community, engage deeply with the humanity of those around you. 

And just like the Scarecrow, you already have a brain. What you don’t have yet is a diploma. But don’t worry, if you work hard, stay true to yourself, and focus on what’s under your control, you too will earn that degree.