Recently, The College Board, the company that produces the SAT and related tests, announced that it would be utilizing an “Environmental Context Dashboard” (known in the popular press as an “adversity score”) to help college admissions officers better understand a student’s SAT score in the context of his/her home and school environments. This dashboard gives each students a score of 0-100 depending on how much challenge he or she has had to overcome. A higher score would indicate that a student has overcome more challenges. This score will be provided as a service and colleges can choose to use it or not.
The ECD considers three main components:
- The first evaluates a student’s SAT score within the context of her school and rates a student based on how her score compares to others in his/her school. For example, if a student scores 1250 on the SAT but the average for the high school is 1100, this student is above the 50thpercentile and would receive more points on the ECD. However, if the average for the class is 1300, then this student is under the 50thpercentile and would receive fewer points on the ECD.
- The second component is data about the high school itself that includes senior class size, percentage of students who meet federal criteria for free and reduced-price lunch, average first-year SAT score of colleges students from that high school, and access to rigorous coursework and advanced academic opportunities by looking at data about Advanced Placement (AP) exams taken by students at the school. It’s important to note that The College Board also produces AP exams. The more ‘hardship’ and fewer ‘advanced opportunities’ a school has, the higher a student’s ECD score.
- The third component involves looking at a student’s home and school environments. This factor evaluates median income, crime rates, percentage of housing units that are vacant or rentals, number of single parent household, poverty rates, crime rates, college going behavior and other specific indicators that they feel define the environment that a student lives and goes to school within. Again, the more ‘hardship’ a student faces, the higher their ECD score. Students will not know their ECD score, but it will be available to college admissions officers to use as they see fit.
This ECD has been largely criticized by many different groups, including some college counselors who work with high school students. It is also being seen as a last ditch effort by the College Board to stay relevant and raise profits as they are losing market share to the ACT, which measures aptitude in 5 academic areas. There are also some colleges that have made submitting a standardized test score optional in the admission process and while it is highly unlikely that the SAT will stop being used completely, its value and relevance is slowly declining. The ECD is also being criticized for being very limited in what data is considered reflective of hardship and some feel as though it is trying to address race without actually using race as a component. There are also those who think that scores and grades should be evaluated in the same way for all students. There are also strong feelings that this tactic does not actually resolve inequity issues in education because it does nothing to address the root causes. Those who favor the ECD say that it helps to identify students who have potential by putting their SAT score in context and helping those students get opportunities they might otherwise not have, even though college admissions officers already know most of this information.
One might think that a strategic solution to raising the EDC score would be to send a child to a lower-performing, under-resourced school. Such a tactic is not likely to impact the score and could cause a long-term loss of opportunity and access to challenge. If this student does not have access to rigorous classes or a peer group that challenges her to work harder, she will not be as prepared for long-term success in college or life. Iron sharpens iron and it is important to remember that when students challenge themselves with rigorous coursework that forces them to think and surround themselves with peers who are equally motivated and capable, they are learning how to rise to challenges and survive. These are the skills that truly help people succeed.
In my career, I have worked with students of extreme privilege and in schools with an abundance of resources. I’ve also worked with students who could score a million for adversity and in schools that barely had enough resources to ensure that basic needs of heat and safety were met. I have seen a difference in the type of education that students experience in these schools—they are not equal, despite the fact that they may have to achieve the same outcomes. Many under-resourced schools struggle to find resources like proper curriculum and teachers and as such, are more limited in what they are able to do. Their focus is to help students, many of whom are behind grade level, meet the basic expectations of tests like the MStep and NWEA. As a result, these students are being taught to do well on a test, sometimes as the expense of critical thinking and activities that inspire creativity, skills highly valued by colleges and the world at large. I’m not sure that this type of ECD score, given at the end of a student’s school career is enough to make up for multiple years of hardship and substandard education, particularly if these students don’t receive proper support and guidance once they arrive on campus.
While there is a desire and a need to level the playing field, it is also important to recognize that institutions of higher education are also a business industry and their success is often measured by external ranking systems. The most popular of these ranking systems, US News and World Report, bases 45% of a ranking on factors that can be linked back to student performance data (including grades and SAT scores). It’s also true that just because one earns admission in college does not automatically mean s/he will graduate. Factors such as finances, academic success/preparation, whether a student feels comfortable can impact whether a student is able to stay in college. To that end, some of the data that is used in ranking systems involves examining how many students who enter the college actually stay and graduate-a concept known as “to and through.” Colleges value their own ranking as a means of improving their own outcomes, thereby increasing and improving their market share. Higher ranked colleges attract more and stronger applicants and since companies tend to use rankings for the purposes of recruitment, high rankings can mean more and better jobs, which is how some students determine where they want to go, completing the cycle.
In order to raise their own rankings, colleges are still going to value and prioritize students with high standardized test scores and grades, both of which can be predictors of future success. Colleges and universities will still always be looking for the strongest students they can attract and until we can find another way to measure these characteristics, will use grades, ranking and standardized test scores to do so.
We’d like to believe that education is the great equalizer. But it’s also true that the system that is currently used to determine college admission is biased against a large number of students, most of whom come from poor and underprivileged backgrounds.
In India, the system is set up to reward those who succeed and the culture acknowledges that everyone is not equal. In the U.S., the belief system is driven by the value that all should have an equal chance, regardless of wealth or privilege. All that said, in both systems, it can be argued that those with more resources tend to have an advantage. Some would say that the advantage is earned because of the hard work and good choices that allow one to achieve a position of privilege while others would say that some people never had even the opportunity to work hard and that penalizing them simply perpetuates the system. Regardless of one’s personal opinion, the trend in American education is to provide more resources, opportunities and supports to students who have not had access to a strong education system in order to level the playing field. For the most part, given the socioeconomic and educational characteristics of the demographic, Indian-American students do not generally fit in this category. But that does not mean that they won’t continue to find success.
Looking at SAT data, Asian students tend to score higher than their peers on the SAT and tend to have higher GPAs. Indian families in America also have higher income levels than other groups and as such, tend to live in areas that are more resourced and that have more resources in the schools. We would expect Indian-American students to have lower ECD scores because they are facing fewer ‘hardships.’ However, considering the overall context of college admissions, it is not likely that this score alone will drastically change the way admissions are done — it can be argued that most of what it measures is already informally considered in the admission process.
However, while there are many objective factors considered in college admission, it is still largely a subjective process. There are real people making decisions and while they use data and information to generate much of the decision, there is still a human factor to the process. This human factor varies college to college, but it’s still there in some form. My main concern with the EDC is that it now quantifies something that was largely abstract before, which makes it more real. College admissions officers have always been able to surmise most of the information considered by the EDC because they know their schools and they can also research most of the factors. It’s not hard for them to tell which students are coming from high income zip codes and schools with many resources and those who are not. Now that this number is actually a tangible score that assigns an actual numerical value, I fear that seeing the number could affect the unconscious bias of the person reading the application and impact the subjectivity of the process. It’s now much easier to use this number to differentiate between students at both ends of the spectrum. As a society and especially in education, there is a bias towards the underdog and to help those who have less. It’s a noble mindset, but in this case because college admissions can be considered a zero sum game, I worry that it might harm some students and make their accomplishments seem less worthy simply because they have a lower EDC score which only took into account a limited number of factors.
There is an assumption that kids who come from privilege don’t have to work hard to achieve and there can be less value given to their outcomes because it’s more expected. This EDC number could serve to undermine a “privileged” student’s high grades or scores because there is a subliminal belief that he ‘should have’ earned them because of his privilege and that it was easy for this student to achieve at this level. However, even ‘privileged’ students have to overcome obstacles and work hard. In the case of Indian-American students, many are the first to go to school in the US. For them and their parents, simply learning the educational system and overcoming language and cultural barriers presented challenges. While these types of obstacles are less harmful than a lack of food or safety, they do impact the student experience.
It is going to become increasingly important that we as a community continue to focus on developing the character of our kids as much as we support the development of their academic skills. There has to be greater emphasis and celebration about how our kids contribute to the community in real and meaningful ways. As a society, we have to accept and embrace that a student’s values and character are equally, if not more important than his grades. We have to show that while our kids might come from privilege and support, they do not feel entitled and develop very strong work ethics. These behaviors also need to start well before high school and before it’s time to write the college essay. These are the values that we need to start instilling at a young age.
In general, I would advise that students continue to work hard and challenge themselves academically and families continue to prioritize strong work ethic, achievement and the development of character. Look for ways to consistently demonstrate student effort and commitment so that it comes through loud and clear to put their ‘privilege score’ in context and to demonstrate that privileged or not, they are strong candidates who will work hard and make important contributions, positively impacting their community.