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The truth behind College Board’s adversity scores


In light of the timeless struggle to even the playing field for college applications, the College Board announced the use of an Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) in May that would accompany a student’s SAT scores. The ECD, also known as an “adversity score,” runs on a scale of one to 100 and attempts to contextualize a student’s standardized test scores based on factors such as their income, zip code, neighborhood, and education situation. Those who score under 50 are labeled as “privileged,” while those over 50 qualify as “disadvantaged.” Currently issued to 150 pilot colleges, the program will be fully available to every university starting from 2020.

Exactly how is this adversity score calculated? The formula for the scale is unknown to the public, but it attempts to take into account official statistics released by the National Center for Educational Statistics and the US Census. However, the recipe for calculation is not the only information hidden from our eyes, given that students will never even know what their adversity scores are.
The attempt to somehow quantify one’s adversity with a simple number also raises a few questions. When Amazon attempted to restructure their hiring model by inviting an artificial intelligence system to “grade” resumes based on key words and statistics, they found that without human input to intervene, the model discriminated disproportionately toward women due to the history behind the hiring process. Similarly, when trying to define how hard one’s upbringing was, leaving fate up to a myriad of numbers can easily lead to inaccurate assessments and blanket statements as well as exploitation from those who learn to “game” the system.

Given that advantages and disadvantages for college admissions is an issue that is worth solving, one may wonder if these adversity scores, by attempting to serve as one factor to gauge the exact differences, can at least be better than taking no action. After all, few can argue that having more knowledge of an applicant can cause more harm than benefits, and in the end, it is up to the discretion of the colleges whether they will even take this into account in the first place. Based on evidence from the pilot programs, reactions vary on a wide spectrum; Yale University has stated that the new scale is “literally affecting every application we look at,” while others have not even gained access to the scale.

However, these adversity scores, through misinterpretation, may also result in unintended side effects based on what they do not factor into their calculations. Despite research stating a crucial link between one’s race and their success in the education system, it is a notable absence from the College Board’s 31-point formula. According to extensive studies done by Yale researchers, implicit bias based on race plays a significant role in pre-school suspension; African-American children are almost four times as likely than white students to be caught for disruptive behavior, regardless of the severity of their transgressions. While race is by no means an absolute determination of one’s upbringing, it may be equivalent to if not a more accurate portrayal than other factors included in the 31 such as neighborhood or school funding. While the adversity scores may be an upgrade on affirmative action policies, given that it seeks to receive input from a multitude of factors and not just one’s ethnicity or minority background, it also does a disservice by avoiding the race question completely.

This is not the College Board’s first encounter with controversy: throughout the years, they have met criticism due to their methods such as charging late and cancellation fee for AP tests while simultaneously bumping up the deadline for registration, increasing their own profits and giving slight disadvantages based on financial situation. Adversity scores are one of College Board’s attempts to address these issues, and while they represent a step in the right direction, they also leave much to be desired.

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