When Victoria Bruton was growing up, she regularly heard guns firing outside her East Baltimore home as she tried doing her homework.
In spite of the violence and poverty swirling around her, Bruton became the valedictorian of Carver Vocational Technical High School’s 2018 class. She excelled in the classroom — but her dedication and smarts didn’t translate to her SAT score, which data shows is correlated with family wealth. Bruton scored about 100 points below the state average on the high-stakes college admissions exam.
Bruton, now at Coppin State University on a full scholarship, applauds the College Board, which administers the SAT, for its plan to assign students what’s been dubbed an “adversity score.” The number is designed to give context to their socioeconomic status. Bruton, 18, said such a metric would’ve ensured that the colleges she applied to knew “how hard it was for me to get to the point where I got to.”
The College Board recently released the plan’s details. It says it will roll out a tool to provide all universities with context for a teenager’s standardized test score. The Environmental Context Dashboard will include information on a student’s high school and data on the surrounding neighborhood, including median family income, the education level of residents and crime statistics.
These data points will provide hard evidence about some of the challenges Baltimore students face. In theory, it provides another opportunity — beyond an essay or recommendation letter — for colleges to understand the obstacles many kids are trying to overcome in pursuit of a higher education.
But in the Baltimore education world, there’s some skepticism about whether the adversity score will make a real difference for city students. Last year, 41% of graduating seniors immediately enrolled in either a two- or four-year college. Their average SAT score was 890 points, nearly 200 points lower than the statewide average for public school students.
A high score indicating more adversity could help offset less than stellar academic scores. The score will be a number from 1 to 100, with a higher number signaling a larger disadvantage.
Rachel Pfeifer has already been encouraging Baltimore students to highlight the adversity they’ve overcome when filling out college applications. Pfeifer, the public school system’s director of college and career readiness, tells them to use their personal essays to “show colleges what their lived experience is.”
Is a student’s resume thin on extracurricular activities because they care for their younger siblings after school? They should lay that out for admissions officers to see, she says. When college counselors write letters of recommendation, she added, it’s imperative they explicitly tell colleges what a student has had to overcome.
Pfeifer is reserving judgment on what an adversity score metric might mean for city children, many of whom come from poverty and attend school in neighborhoods ravaged by gun violence. Ideally, she said, colleges will view the dashboard and identify strong candidates who they might have previously overlooked.
“My hope would be that this would allow colleges to take a closer look at students who might have evidence of being ready for college in spite of the circumstances in which they find themselves,” she said.
Some critics have been pushing to eliminate such a high-stakes test.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, called the index the “latest attempt by the College Board to defend the SAT against increasingly well-documented critiques of the negative consequences of relying on admissions test results.”
These entrance exams have faced renewed scrutiny in the wake of the recent “Varsity Blues” cheating scandal in which authorities say wealthy parents bribed coaches and rigged entrance exams to game the admissions system.
Ian Siegel, CEO of Baltimore-based Streamline Tutors, said the idea of an adversity score leaves him with too many questions. He wonders how it will account for students from low-income neighborhoods who travel across the city to attend better schools — or for more well-off kids who attend schools in struggling neighborhoods.
“Already you’re taking the original number with a grain of salt,” he said, “and now here’s another number you have to take with a grain of salt.”
The College Board has piloted the dashboard at 50 colleges, and expects to make the tool broadly available to colleges for free next year.
Pfeifer said the dashboard’s success will depend on how colleges chose to use it.
“We know the playing field is not level,” she said. “It’s very challenging to quantify adversity, and I am not sure how every college will respond to that.”
The University of Maryland, College Park considers more than two dozen factors in admissions. Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions, said this process allows the school to put a student’s achievements into context.
The dashboard will give officials a “tool which further contextualizes some of the adversity that may have impacted a student,” she said in a statement. Just 390 Baltimore students enrolled at the state’s flagship university as freshmen in fall 2018.
Bruton said she thinks more Baltimore kids will apply for selective colleges if they know their SAT scores will be given more context.
Cassie Motz, director of the Baltimore-based CollegeBound Foundation, has reservations about how the adversity score will be used in practice. She is concerned that students won’t be told what their score is and how it factors in.
But at the very least, Motz said, the index is “an acknowledgement from the College Board that there are gross inequities in resources that students have to get to college.” Students from poor neighborhoods are much less likely than their wealthier peers to have access to high-quality SAT prep or private tutors.
“A lot of people in my world who do this work day-to-day recognize there are great inequities and students do suffer adversity,” she said. “If this causes a broader conversation, that’s a good thing.”