The SAT Does Not Have an “Adversity Score,” It Has a Tool for Helping Us Appreciate the Bigger Picture

It has been just over a month since the American public was introduced to the SAT’s new Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD), though you might not have known this because it has so often been presented under the guise of an “adversity score,” as these headlines from the Washington Post and CNBC demonstrate. Now that we have had time to let zealous (and genuine) concerns about the implementation of the ECD settle a bit, I think we can come to respect the intent of the College Board with the roll out of this new SAT tool that will be available to now 150 universities to try out this fall.

In Biblical exegesis, context matters. In figuring out what to wear on a date, context matters. In deciding where to go out to eat, context matters. Context matters, we all know this, and it is meant to give us a greater appreciation for the Bible verse we read, the tie we wear, or the choice we make to eat Mexican food in the middle of Idaho (if there is a good Mexican restaurant in Idaho, you’ll have to forgive me).

The ECD is meant to allow college admissions departments to evaluate a student’s SAT score against a rough picture of the environment in which the student resides and goes to school. A student who scores a 1200 on the SAT is doing pretty well. But imagine if we also knew that this particular student attended a school in which the average SAT score was 1200. Comparatively, imagine if we knew this student attended a school in which the average SAT score was 900. Does this not help you appreciate where the student comes from? Would you not want to take a deeper look into this student’s application?

Let us take the Women’s World Cup for example. Last week the U.S. Women beat Thailand, a team not projected to make it out of the group stage, thirteen to zero. Historical performance? Yes. But imagine if they had done this against a seasoned Sweden or China team. The score would not change, but I can speculate that people would be talking about the weight of the win rather than the excessiveness of the U.S. team’s celebrations. Context matters.

When students come out of high school, they do not simply want to be looked at as an SAT score. They want colleges to go deeper into their stories and backgrounds. For a student who comes out of a disadvantaged or marginalized community, if his or her SAT score does not immediately jump out at you, perhaps it will jump out at you when you can see it within the bigger picture. And perhaps when you appreciate this aspect, you might be more inclined to move beyond the top sheet of their college application.

To those who may still be critical of the ECD or think it will adversely affect affluent students in the college admissions process, I draw your attention to the results of a recent report from the Pell Institute that focused on equity in higher education. Mr. Whitmire comments, “The bottom line of that report: In the United States, it’s better to be rich than smart. Children with low test scores from high-income families have a 71 percent chance of being affluent adults by the age of 25, compared with only a 31 percent chance for poor children with high test scores.”

Let us not forget, in America, it is never an advantage to be disadvantaged. An addition of a context indicator to the SAT, though not perfect, will immensely help colleges appreciate the bigger picture of where their applicants come from. When those who built the system are working to fix the system, their efforts should be applauded, and if not applauded, at least appreciated in light of the bigger picture.

What do you think?

For more information on the ECD, see the College Board’s info-sheet titled “Introducing the Environmental Context Dashboard” below or download it here.

For Justice and Equity in education,

Rev. Girien R. Salazar
Executive Director, FE Coalition