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Editorial: College Board’s revision of adversity score will address admissions inequity

By Editorial Board

Sept. 18, 2019 1:24 a.m.

If at first you don’t succeed, then try again.

These are words to live by for the College Board – an educational organization hellbent on maintaining its reputation as mandatory for college hopefuls, much to the doubt of critics and data studies. In May, it announced plans for a new “adversity score” to go along with students’ SAT scores to account for their social and economic backgrounds – because turning people into numbers is always a good idea.

After it received copious amounts of criticism over the past few months, College Board backpedaled. The adversity score, which was only available to admissions officers, has been replaced with Landscape. This revised tool provides information on a student’s background through government data and considers students in the context of their environments, instead of using a number that reflects their personal hardships.

And the revision was the right move.

The single adversity score was too vague to properly encapsulate an individual’s entire socioeconomic background. To boil 15 factors – ranging from percentages of poverty, educational attainment and agricultural jobs in a neighborhood – down into a single number ignored the complexities and variances each of those factors had on a student’s SAT score. And although Landscape may not be perfect, it proves the College Board is actively working to consider student’s circumstances beyond a test score.

The socioeconomic-weighting concept has shown promise in other cases. Yale University piloted the Environmental Context Dashboard in its admissions process, and the admissions dean Jeremiah Quinlan said the number of students eligible for income-based federal Pell Grants grew from 12% to 16% to 20% in six years.

If an early form of the dashboard – the single adversity score – can afford more students the financial opportunities to pursue a higher education degree, a more extensive revision of Landscape can give admissions officers more thorough accounts of applicants’ experiences.

And if Landscape can help low-income and underrepresented students access financial aid for higher education, then the College Board is rightfully pursuing a worthwhile program.

Landscape provides three categories of information to admissions officers: basic high school data, test score comparisons to others from the same school, and high school and neighborhood indicators. This variety of data, far more detailed than a single digit, can help officers consider every student more fully, regardless of where they live.

In a year plagued by admissions abuse by those with access and wealth, College Board’s attempt to make the admissions process more equitable for disadvantaged students is commendable.

But it isn’t out of the woods yet. The SAT has inherent issues rooted in resource gaps and wealth discrepancies. And while these meaningful improvements move the exam closer to giving disadvantaged students an equitable chance in the admissions process, they must serve as a starting point – not a final solution.

Though it’s debatable whether students should be defined by test scores at all, these new tools are doing good work considering the flawed system they have at their disposal.

And when it comes to fair admissions, we’ll take a step in the right direction over no movement at all.

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