College Board backtracks on ‘adversity score’ after criticism

Sept. 24, 2019, 12:25 a.m.

The College Board will cancel its plans to roll out its adversity score — a number meant to add further context to an applicant’s accomplishments by providing data about their high school and neighborhood — amid bouts of criticism, the testing company announced on Aug. 27. Stanford was one of 50 colleges to pilot the score and the related Environmental Context Dashboard in its admissions process for the Class of 2023.

Most criticism targeted the notion that a student’s obstacles and achievements could be distilled in a single numerical score. The College Board, however, maintained that the metric is not about opportunities available to individual students, but is instead meant to provide consistent data to help admissions officers understand students’ high schools and communities.

While the adversity score itself has been withdrawn, it appears that the initiative behind the number has been tweaked rather than abandoned entirely.

The original score was based on factors including median family income, AP participation and the proportion of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch to generate a neighborhood score and a high school score. These two numbers were then averaged to calculate the adversity score, with lower numbers meant to signify greater challenges related to opportunities and outcomes. 

Participating universities will still receive the two scores that formerly constituted the adversity score, but not the composite number. Students and educators will also be able to see the two scores beginning next year.

Objections prompted the College Board to change the name of the larger rating system, which also includes a comparison of the applicants’ SAT scores to the average scores at their high school, from the Environmental Context Dashboard to Landscape, and to reduce the number of factors that comprise the school and neighborhood score. 

Access to the Landscape dashboard is expected to expand to between 100 and 150 schools for the coming admissions cycle and will be broadly available to colleges and universities by fall 2020.

“I think it is a retreat from the notion that a single score is better,” College Board CEO David Coleman told The New York Times about the change in plans. “So in that sense, we’ve adopted a humbler position. That’s admitting that the College Board should keep its focus on scoring achievement. We have acknowledged that we have perhaps overstepped.”

Stanford believes the two separate scores represent an improvement for the dashboard, University spokesperson E. J. Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily. He noted that the data from Landscape is “among many factors in an application that provide valuable context and background on the student,” building on the holistic approach Stanford has traditionally taken in reviewing applicants. 

“We are studying its efficacy and possible uses in our selection process and we will continue piloting information in Landscape for the Class of 2024,” Miranda added.  

Other participating universities have also found the data useful: 90% of the schools that had access to the pilot program reported that the dashboard “provided a more comprehensive view of the applicant and made incorporating contextual information easier,” reads the College Board’s website. 

In its press release announcing the change, the College Board wrote that admissions officers who employed the dashboard estimate that for about 25% of all applications, they lack basic data about students’ high school environments, such as AP participation. 

In addition to providing consistent data on a greater number of high schools, a primary motivation behind contextualizing applications is to combat the role privilege can play in high standardized test scores. Students from wealthier backgrounds can often afford to pay for expensive SAT prep classes, not to mention enjoy additional advantages from attending higher-achieving high schools. 

The changes to the dashboard come amid a national debate about the influence of privilege and wealth on college admissions, from the college admissions scandal uncovered earlier this year to the pending lawsuit against Harvard regarding affirmative action.

With the dashboard’s continuing rollout in the coming admissions cycle, the College Board has continued to emphasize the broad lens of the rating system.

“It does not help [admissions officers] understand an applicant’s individual circumstances — their personal stories, hardships, or home life,” the College Board states in the FAQ section of its Landscape website. “This is not the purpose of Landscape or the role of the College Board and it never will be.”  

Contact Emma Smith at esmith11 ‘at’

Emma Smith '22 is a desk editor for the Academics beat of news. She is originally from Oak Park, IL and is studying International Relations with a focus on the intersection between international security and human rights. Contact her at esmith11 'at'

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