Meet The SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard

There is a new SAT score that colleges will see on your student’s college applications this fall and beyond. The Environmental Context Dashboard (aka, The Adversity Score) has quietly been used by a few colleges (including Duke, Yale, and Florida State) but many more colleges (100-150) will be seeing this score in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle.  

As the debate continues over the predictive value and fairness of the test, the SAT’s intent is to offer colleges information about a student’s socioeconomic and educational environment; thereby helping colleges understand how much of an achievement a student’s SAT score is in light of their background. Students, parents, and high school counselors, however, will not be able to see the score attached to students’ files.

How is it calculated? The ECD index has three components (see photo below). The first attempts to put SAT scores in context using the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of SAT scores from the student’s high school (3-year average). The second includes information on the high school, including senior class size; percentage of students who meet federal eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price lunch; rurality/urbanicity; and average first-year SAT score of colleges students from that high school attend, the percentage of seniors taking an AP Exam, average number of AP Exams taken, average AP score from that high school, and the number of unique AP Exams administered at that high school (3-year average).

Finally, the score considers contextual data on the neighborhood and high school environment, measuring both the neighborhood and high school environment that the student comes from. This information includes Median Income & Poverty, Single Parent Households percentage, Education Levels, Housing Statistics, and FBI Crime Statistics, and is calculated using data drawn from a combination of publicly available sources (e.g., NCES and U.S. Census Bureau), and aggregated College Board data. The neighborhood and high school measures are rated on a nationally normed scale between 1 and 100. The two scores are averaged to get the ECD index score, with 1 indicating low “adversity” and 100 meaning the most.

The Environmental Context Dashboard

Every student in the same neighborhood gets the same score, and every student in the same school gets the same score. However, the Dashboard and resulting index are currently only visible to colleges.

Even though race is not a factor in the formula, colleges using it report that students with higher index scores are “more likely to be students of color” (John Barnhill, Florida State University’s assistant vice president for academic affairs). Proponents of the new index hope it will help colleges find “diamonds in the rough”, recognizing students relative achievement and potential for future success, instead of expecting all students to reach the same bar.

The index is not without its critics, including FairTest.org, with many questioning the need for a tool that runs the risk of being taken at face value without individual context. “Promotion of ‘adversity scores’ is 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,” according to Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). Others add, “If the score on your standardized test requires a separate algorithm to determine if the score is actually a valid measure of ability, then perhaps it’s time to fix the test itself rather than contextualize its scores.”

College admissions staff already work hard to understand a student within the context and environment they come from and their evaluations often use more nuanced information than a standardized score can offer. However, colleges that are currently using the score appreciate its ability to bring certain students to their attention that might otherwise have been missed.

David Coleman from the College Board responded to criticism about the new score and to the inherent flaws in the calculations. “The score is a measure of your achievement but it doesn’t measure what you’ve overcome and the situation you have achieved that in. How resourceful are you and have you done more with less?” But even David Coleman agrees that the Environmental Context score is not a measure of individual adversity, as students in affluent zip codes may have overcome plenty of academic and personal obstacles; likewise, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds may have received scholarships to attend a school with a “low adversity” score.

The ACT, while admiring (the SAT’s) good intentions, announced the organization does not think it is a good idea. Michael Roorda (the ACT’s CEO) commented, “Scores that affect students’ futures require transparency, validity, and fairness. The algorithm and research behind this adversity score have not been published. It is basically a black box….and is another example of not being transparent.” He goes on to state what we are all thinking, “If parents, teachers, and counselors know test scores will be re-equated for adversity, some will attempt to manipulate and game the system. That is easy: You can use an address of someone you know who is living in a poor neighborhood or report lower family income.”

Most people agree that students who have faced adversity should be acknowledged for their achievements in context. Those taking the SAT will have to trust (hope) that the data is used not as an unfailing numerical piece of information, but as a possible sign that admissions staff should look deeper into a student’s background when viewing their accomplishments. It remains to be seen if the SAT’s new college offering is the right tool to help, and if it can do so without creating more unscrupulous opportunities.