The College Board is addressing potential inequities in SAT results with a new “adversity score” that will take into account a student’s economic and social background in addition to the verbal and math skills the test traditionally assesses.
We think it is important to take into consideration parts of a student’s life that may not show up in a test score. After all it has been consistently shown that wealthy kids, with access to prep courses and better resourced high schools, perform better on the test than those from lower income families and that minorities tend to score lower than whites.
But we can’t help but wonder if the institution is making a too-late attempt at trying to stay relevant as more schools are putting less emphasis on a test score that doesn’t fully define a student. Some universities don’t consider the test at all because of concerns that it is culturally biased and not a good indicator of how well a student will do in college. There are now more than 1,000 accredited colleges and universities that do not consider the SAT, or the similar ACT, in all or most cases of students trying to gain admission to their schools, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
Colleges are already doing a better job of learning the backgrounds of applicants. Much of this new information the College Board is providing is already available on college applications or is divulged in student essays.
There are more significant ways the College Board could improve equity of the SAT, which has long been criticized for not being a complete measure of a student’s aptitude and even dubbed a “white preference test” by some. For one, it needs to clean up its own house. The nationwide cheating scandal involving wealthy families paying for their way into the best schools found that SAT testing sites were severely compromised. Test administrators were bribed into falsifying scores, and some students had others take the test for them.
The board also needs to take a closer look at the test itself. Research, including a 2010 study published in the Harvard Educational Review, has found the test uses cultural expressions and language more familiar to white test takers. Blacks with the same academic background and smarts as whites scored lower on the verbal section. If the College Board really wants to address potential biases in the test, it should look at the way questions are worded. The board has consistently denied bias in test questions, saying that each question is scrutinized rigorously. It instead says that societal inequities, such as poverty and poor schools, contribute to the disparities in test scores.
And even fixing the SAT wouldn’t really solve the problem of providing fair access to higher education. Colleges also need to eliminate biased practices that have kept them from diversifying their student bodies. We all now know that wealthy families can buy their way into a good school or that students with the right last name can gain admittance with the benefits of legacy. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin have been displayed as the poster children of these bad acts, but subtler forms of privilege-protection go on all the time.
The new adversity scores given to students will range from 1 to 100 and be derived by looking at 15 factors, including neighborhood crime, poverty levels, median family incomes and parental education. Scores higher than 50 will be an indication a student is more disadvantaged. Students will not know their scores, but colleges can access them for help with in making admission decisions.
The adversity scores have already been tried out in a pilot at 50 colleges and will be expanded to 150 this fall. Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, told the Wall Street Journal that the university has nearly doubled the number of low-income students and first generation college students to about 20 percent of new enrollees. "It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class," he told The Journal.
We are glad some students have seen the benefit of such scores and look forward to seeing if other schools have the same results.
Ultimately, to get the best assessment of potential students, more colleges need to stop putting so much emphasis on a test. A test score doesn’t tell if a student will show up to class and complete assignments or has good study habits. Think of all the students with good grades who give up on their dreams of attending one of the best colleges because their SAT scores don’t muster up. Figuring out which students have the talent and tenacity to succeed at any particular college is an imperfect science that requires thoughtful human judgments, not some sort of arbitrarily derived metric — whether it’s an adversity score or the SAT itself.