NEWS

College Among Pilot Group for ‘Adversity Score’ Tool

By Natalie De Rosa '21 || Issue 149-1

The college adopted the “adversity score” to improve its holistic admissions criteria, specifically to better understand the resources students have in their home environment. Photo courtesy of Matai Curzon '22.

The college was one of 50 institutions across the nation to test the College Board’s recently released Environmental Context Dashboard during the past admissions cycle for the class of 2023, according to The Boston Globe. The dashboard, more colloquially referred to as the “adversity score,” will become available to 150 colleges and universities this upcoming admissions cycle; the College Board plans to redesign the tool distribute it to other institutions by 2020.


The College Board first announced the implementation of the dashboard this May as a tool for institutions to contextualize students’ academic profile by measuring 16 factors related to their high schools and neighborhoods at large, including statistics like percentage of all households in poverty and probability of being a victim of a crime. Students receive a score only available to admissions officers — not students or high schools — on a scale of one to 100.


A score of 50 indicates an average level of disadvantage, with higher scores representing increasing levels of disadvantage. Though the score will be calculated in addition to a student’s performance on the SAT exam, their score on the dashboard will not impact their overall SAT score.


The release of the dashboard comes after the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal this year, in which high-profile, affluent parents offered bribes for their children to gain acceptance into prestigious colleges and universities across the country. Since the scandal, conversations about wealth inequality on college campuses and barriers to entry for low-income students have gained traction.


Acting among a cohort of colleges and universities including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley, Amherst’s participation in the dashboard’s pilot group is merely a reflection of admissions practices already used by the college, according to Dean of Admission Matt McGann. As a part of its holistic admissions criteria, an attempt to consider the entirety of a student’s circumstances rather than select features like grades, the college asks applicants to submit a school profile that denotes qualities of their high school including average test scores, course offerings and the demographics of the student population. While the information is useful, its variability across students highlights an inequality of resources.


“One of the problems with school profiles is that there is no uniform school profile. So some schools, often those with the most resources, have very fancy and elaborate profiles to tell the story of their school and the opportunities therein,” McGann said. “Other schools, more often those with fewer resources and with students who are less resourced, will have school profiles that are not as helpful in helping an admission officer to understand a student’s context.”


To alleviate this disparity, the admissions office has historically relied on public data provided by the Census Bureau to contextualize students in relationship to their surrounding community. Because the dashboard uses the same Census data that the admissions office already pulls from and places it in one tool, McGann said the dashboard’s pilot introduces “a standardized way for all students to provide some contextual information about … their high schools.”


“There are 30,000 high schools in this country and we try to visit some high schools, but we’re not going to be able to visit 30,000 high schools. And it’s unrealistic to expect any admissions office to know all of those high schools and the many, many communities across the country and around the world,” he added.


The inclusion of contextual environmental information in a student’s academic profile allows admissions officers to better understand what achievement looks like within particular communities.


“There’s some pretty interesting research out there about the difference between a student with say a 1400 who goes to a school where the median score is 920, and the student who scores a 1400 and goes to a school where the median score is 1500. That gives you some really interesting insight information about the student’s achievement in context,” McGann said.


One recent study from University of Michigan professor Michael Bastedo and University of Iowa professor Nicholas Bowman, for instance, notes that a student from the top income quartile is six times more likely to score a 1200 on the SAT than a student from the lowest quartile. Since the College Board announced its launch, the dashboard has garnered varying responses from the public. Though some have applauded the College Board’s attempt to offer a more nuanced profile of student achievement, others voiced concerns about the dashboard’s lack of consideration for race and its inability to examine a particular student’s individual hardships.


Ryder Coates ’23, who described his neighborhood in Oklahoma City as made up of primarily working-class families, noted that while his high school maintained a college-going culture, few students chose to leave Oklahoma. Though he viewed the dashboard as “[not] a terrible idea,” he shared some concerns with its methodology.


“I don’t think that something like disadvantage can be boiled down to just a number,” he said in an email interview. “An additional statistic giving a relative idea of how disadvantaged a student’s communities are could give an SAT score some context. But as for considering the student’s background and history, I’d be surprised if more significant factors and stories didn’t show up elsewhere in an application. My hope is that colleges don’t apply a tremendous amount of weight to the score, and that it’s simply another aspect of a holistic application.”


For Alexis Scalese ’22, the dashboard’s race-blind criteria places the tool at a disadvantage. “I don’t think it can accurately capture the adversities for native/indigenous students and black students. There is an inherent flaw to it that it does not factor in race. It seems [the College Board] are trying to prove their tests are an equal playing field for students of all races when their tests have a lot of cultural biases in them,” she said. “The adversity score doesn’t factor in race and that’s flawed because race affects how people are treated in schools, from micro biases to big biases.”


“I think the fact that the college board has something like the adversity score shows that their tests and exams do not level the playing field,” Scalese added.


The College Board has since announced on Aug. 27 that it will revise the original version of the dashboard in response to scrutiny surrounding it, with plans to provide admissions officers with multiple data points about a student’s communities, rather than a singular score, and give students the option to view details about their communities and high schools, among other changes.