College & Workforce Readiness

Counselors Blast College Board’s Plan to Assign Students a ‘Disadvantage’ Score

College Board program reignites debate on admissions decisions
By Catherine Gewertz — May 20, 2019 9 min read
The University of South Carolina has found the College Board's "environmental context dashboard" helpful in identifying low-income and first-generation college students.
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The College Board’s plan to expand a program that’s designed to help colleges see students’ SAT performance more fairly, by scoring students’ high schools and neighborhoods by “level of disadvantage,” has rattled college counselors and reignited decades-old debates about how college admission decisions are made.

As soon as news broke last week that 150 colleges and universities would pilot the testing organization’s “Environmental Context Dashboard” next fall—three times the number that used it in 2018-19—counselors were juggling phone calls from parents and jumping into debates on Twitter and Facebook.

The conversations took on an added charge since they come at a time when parents and counselors are particularly on edge about fairness in admissions. Persistent underrepresentation of black, Latino, and low-income students on elite campuses, a trial that showcased preferences for the children of alumni and big donors in Harvard’s admission policies, and a spectacular college-admissions bribery prosecution have all turned up the volume on the debate.

Some counselors had supportive words for the College Board’s program, which scores students’ high schools’ and neighborhoods’ “level of disadvantage” on a scale from 1-100. But criticism and skepticism far outweighed applause.

“If they are admitting that we need this adversity score, and that they are only rolling it out to 150 colleges next year, then why are we still using this test?” Stacey Cunitz, the director of college counseling at the Crefeld School, a private school for grades 7-12 in Philadelphia, said on a listserv for college counselors.

She, and many others, worried that wealthier parents will try to outsmart the system.

“Are we now going to have rich parents buying houses in poor zip codes so their kids can get a higher adversity score?” she said in an interview.

Cristiana Quinn, who founded College Admission Advisors in Providence, R.I., which provides college counseling for students and families, wondered whether the new dashboard would encourage better-off students to choose the ACT. That company’s CEO, Marten Roorda, wrote Friday afternoon that the ACT would not follow suit with a similar system.

“If the SAT is going to start identifying students on level of adversity, or grit, or what-have-you, and ACT is not, does that mean the ACT is going to become a better test for more affluent students to take so they’re not identified as low adversity?” she said.

The “level of panic,” as one college admissions official called it, was so high on social media that the College Board scrambled to issue a “what you need to know” document about the dashboard.

Resourcefulness and Other Student Qualities

The “disadvantage level” scores are part of a project the College Board began developing in 2015 at the request of colleges. The resulting dashboard presents admissions officers with information about students’ neighborhoods and high schools, such as the poverty level and the availability of challenging coursework, to help them see students’ SAT scores “in context” of where they live and go to school.

Admissions officials can evaluate ACT performance with the tool also, because the College Board built ACT score equivalents into its system. Those kinds of conversions, known as concordances, are widely criticized as inaccurate, however.

College Board CEO David Coleman said the project is meant to encourage colleges to recognize student qualities that the SAT can’t capture, such as resourcefulness. Essays, letters of recommendation, and the “profiles” most high schools post sometimes capture the challenges and circumstances students face, he said, but in many cases, colleges must dig to find those things out, or simply do without that information. Without a tool like the dashboard, he said, “the SAT could be misleading.”

“To warrant that the playing field is now level isn’t right or just,” Coleman said. “In the America we live in … the vast majority of students are working with a lot less than the top third. To then say that the SAT is enough to reflect what you can do, no, it isn’t.”

College-admissions representatives who’ve been piloting the dashboard said they’ve found it useful. Scott Verzyl, the dean of admissions at the University of South Carolina, said that in each of the two years the institution has been using it, his team has admitted about 125 students “we probably would not have considered otherwise” into its entering freshman classes of about 6,000.

“It helps us find students from underrepresented high schools, first-generation and low-income students, and students who’ve done well achieving academically despite being in an environment that’s stacked against them in some ways,” Verzyl said.

Joy St. John, the director of admissions at Wellesley College, said the dashboard has helped her team get a more detailed picture of applicants coming from regions of the country that don’t typically send many students to the Massachusetts school. Knowing, for instance, that an Oklahoma student lives in a remote rural community helps an admissions officer see how she could bring a potentially enriching perspective to campus, St. John said.

“Sometimes students don’t know what’s most unique about them,” she said. “It might be something really special and would inform their academic work, and their interactions in the classroom and on our campus. It’s another form of diversity we want to be able to consider.”

The dashboard is based in part on research by Michael N. Bastedo, a University of Michigan scholar who focuses on college access. He has found that low-income students are more likely to be admitted to college when admissions officers review “contextual” information about their circumstances.

But the College Board’s program caused enough uproar last week that Bastedo himself took to Twitter, posting a long stream of tweets to clarify what the program does and doesn’t do.

“It’s not just one adversity score,” he wrote. “The [dashboard] is not a panacea. Applicants will have other stressors and adversities in their lives (disabilities, death of parent, many things) that have to come through the rest of the application. That’s holistic review. This [new tool] is only trying to improve one part.”

‘Striver’s’ Tool Scrapped

This isn’t the first time the College Board has considered using socioeconomic and other data to round out the perceptions of students’ SAT scores. In 1999, the Educational Testing Service, which designs the SAT questions, created a “striver’s” tool that would have identified students who scored higher than expected based on racial, socioeconomic, and other data. Race, class, and parental education have long influenced students’ SAT scores, causing widespread mistrust of what those scores reflect.

The striver’s program emerged from worry that the U.S. Supreme Court might ban affirmative action. Several states had already done so. But colleges “freaked out” about the news, and the College Board shut down the program, said Anthony Carnevale, who led the striver’s project for ETS 20 years ago.

The reaction to the College Board’s new dashboard drew comments online that showed its power to reignite old affirmation-action debates. A woman who identified herself as Carol Ambrose9 posted on Twitter: “do U want a person who got into school because of a high #adversity score performing surgery or making life & death decisions 4 U or do U want someone who actually has the ability and intelligence 2 get into school. Really just #affirmativeaction renamed.” She ended her post with “vote @realDonaldTrump.”

Others who jumped into arguments on social media sounded resigned and grudgingly supportive of the new “level of disadvantage” scores. “If they’re going to continue to push testing as a factor in the admissions process, then they might as well give us more data to put those numbers into context,” said one participant in a private Facebook group for college counselors.

Others were suspicious of the College Board’s motives for building the new tool, at a time when the list of colleges that now make the SAT or ACT optional has grown to more than 1,200. Could the new tool be a bid to stop more from jumping ship?

David Quinn, an International Baccalaureate coordinator in Lynnwood, Wash., got this text from a colleague: “[College Board President] Coleman is gonna hand out shirts at [the next counselors’ conference] that say: The College Board! We’re Still Relevant!”

Many counselors felt caught in a bind. They knew they’d have to explain to parents how the additional score might affect their children, and they didn’t have enough information yet. Some posted notes to colleagues on social media, asking if anyone knew which 150 colleges would pilot the system next year because parents were already asking.

Legal Battles Looming?

Jill Madenberg, the founder of Madenberg College Consulting, in Lake Success, N.Y., said that she got a call from one parent of a 9th grader and a 7th grader.

“She was questioning the SAT versus the ACT in light of this,” Madenberg said. “I told her it’s way too early to make that call.”

Joseph Miller, the associate director of college counseling at St. Agnes Academy, a Roman Catholic high school for girls in Houston, was troubled that colleges would substitute an electronic tool for a “nuanced, personal” inquiry into applicants’ lives and circumstances.

“If I’m a university, I should take the opportunity to find out, ‘Oh, this is a school in rural Alabama, where we don’t get many applicants. Let’s find out more.’ That onus is on the institution, and on us, as college counselors. That’s what we do. We make colleges aware of our students and where they come from,” Miller said.

Veteran counselors predicted a period of confusion and anxiety in the shortage of information about the College Board’s new system.

“Counselors will be asking, how will this child be measured? And at least initially, they won’t have much clarity,” said Scott Griggs, who worked as a college counselor and principal in private schools before assuming leadership of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, which accredits private schools. “It will add a layer of confusion to an already complicated process.”

Many who reacted to the College Board’s new plan were uneasy that students and counselors wouldn’t get to see the “disadvantage scores,” learn how the factors in it are weighted, or check their accuracy.

“If school counselors and students are not told the score, what happens when it is inaccurate in some way? Who is checking?” Cunitz said.

Some saw legal battles looming. Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University in Chicago, and an outspoken critic of admissions testing, posted on Twitter that students won’t see their disadvantage scores “[u]ntil the parents of some rich, white boy at a New England prep school sues, claiming the Adversity Index unfairly penalizes the boy for being rich and white and from a New England prep school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘Disadvantage’ Index for SAT Angers Counselors


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