SAT to add 'adversity score' that will factor student hardships into college admissions

The adversity score will take into consideration a student's neighborhood, family and school environments and then generate a number based on those factors.

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By Safia Samee Ali

The SAT exam, used by a majority of colleges to grant entrance, will be adding an “adversity score” to the test that will take into account a student’s socioeconomic background in an effort to help colleges take a more rounded approach in the admissions process.

The new measure, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is aimed at factoring in student hardships that are not reflected in test scores.

"Through its history, the College Board has been focused on finding unseen talent. The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less. It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked," said David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT.

"There is talent and potential waiting to be discovered in every community – the children of poor rural families, kids navigating the challenges of life in the inner city, and military dependents who face the daily difficulties of low income and frequent deployments as part of their family’s service to our country. No single test score should ever be examined without paying attention to this critical context," he added in a statement to NBC News.

The adversity score, called Environmental Context Dashboard, will take into consideration a student's neighborhood, family and school, and then assign the student a number based on those factors.

More specifically, the score will fall on a scale between 1 and 100, with an average score of 50 — anything above that would show hardship.

The calculation, which will be sent to colleges but not shared with students, will be based by looking at the crime and poverty rates of a student’s neighborhood, as well as their parents' income level. Race is not a factor in the score, according to the College Board.

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The adversity score also adds additional context to a student by including the average number of AP courses taken and scores from AP tests, as well as the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the College Board.

The College Board has already conducted a test run of the adversity score program at 50 schools. The program will officially roll out to 150 additional schools by the end of the year, with plans to add more in 2020.

Results from the pilot program were positive in part because they provided decision makers with more context so they could take a more holistic approach to decision making, according to the College Board.

"We are proud that results from our pilot of the tool show that using the Environment Context Dashboard makes it more likely that students who demonstrate strength and resourcefulness in overcoming challenges are more likely to be admitted to college," Coleman said in a statement.

But some educators are not sold on the idea of boiling a student's experience down to a number.

"I've heard about the new adversity score and it's concerning on a couple of levels," said Bryan Rutledge, the director of college counseling at Woodward Academy, a private k-12 school in Atlanta. There are better ways than zip codes to identify adversity, such as hearing it directly from a student in a personal essay or through a teacher recommendation, he said.

"It risks reducing something that is very human to a number and I don't think that's the most appropriate way to understand students," Rutledge said.

Student portfolios or video interviews are some of the ways admissions personnel can get a more holistic understanding of a candidate without just summing up their experiences with a number, said Amanda Alpert Knight, the CEO of ASPIRA of Illinois, a charter school system based in inner city Chicago. "If you are really trying to level the playing field, then you have to look at more student-driven metrics for context," she said.

Other school systems are more optimistic about the new scale.

"The announcement that the College Board will implement an adversity score, that would attempt to measure the layers of inequity our students face, provides us with hope that there will be greater equity in the college entrance process. We look forward to more information about how these shifts will influence our strategy for preparing our students for college success," YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school system in Houston's most underserved areas, said in a statement to NBC News.

The addition of the adversity score comes amid a national debate on the ethics of college admissions.

In March, several individuals were indicted in a college admission scandal that included the use of a professional SAT test-taker and access to special test accommodations.

Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to federal charges Monday, admitting that she paid a fixer thousands of dollars to have wrong answers corrected on her daughter's SAT exam, leading to a remarkably improved score from the teen's PSAT performance, prosecutors said.

Georgetown University expelled two students for their involvement in the same college admission scandal.