Editorial: Should privilege and disadvantage play a role in SAT scores?

SAT College Exams To Undergo Major Changes
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

When the University of California threatened to drop the SAT as a college entrance requirement more than 15 years ago, the College Board eliminated the analogy questions and introduced a new essay portion. The changes helped keep the test in business but didn’t necessarily make it a stronger predictor of whether students would succeed in college. The new writing portion, in particular, was poorly designed and easily gamed by composing longer essays and using what Mark Twain would call five-dollar words.

In more recent years, new concerns have arisen about the SAT, and especially about the advantage it gives to affluent students who have attended academically robust schools and benefited from the help of SAT tutors. Making matters worse, this year’s college admissions scandal showed that the SAT is far from impervious to cheating.

These days, more than 1,000 colleges and universities do not require the SAT or its competitor, the ACT; the University of Chicago is among the most recent to have dropped the requirement. The University of California is studying how useful the tests really are in finding great applicants. The College Board has revamped the test yet again and added access to a free online tutoring program, but the objections have continued.

Unstable families, ill health and domestic violence occur in affluent areas, too.

Against that backdrop, the College Board has now announced its latest gambit: It is adding a new score to students’ SAT reports designed to show the level of adversity they have faced. On a scale of 1 to 100, the “Environmental Context Dashboard” is supposed to give admissions officers a sense of what students have had to overcome in life, which can then be used by colleges in deciding whom to admit. The student’s “overall disadvantage level” will be calculated based on 15 factors, including whether he or she lives in a neighborhood that struggles with poverty, crime and family instability, or has attended schools where relatively few students take challenging courses. The income, education and marital status of families in the student’s neighborhood are also among the factors considered.

The College Board is right about this much, at least: Admissions officers should take into account the obstacles that students have faced and overcome. Performance on the SAT is highly correlated with family income and education.

But the new adversity score is all wrong when it comes to accomplishing the task at hand. It is a blunt instrument that won’t give colleges accurate information about each student. The index doesn’t provide information about the actual student; it’s a theoretical number based on neighborhood census data, FBI crime data, school data and other sources. It ignores the fact that students face all kinds of difficulties, many of them immeasurable.

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After all, unstable families, ill health and domestic violence occur in affluent areas, too. In addition, a fair number of poor families live in middle-class and affluent enclaves. In the Beverly Hills Unified School District, 17.5% of students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, meaning that they qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and/or have parents who never made it through high school. Other low-income families put in huge efforts to enroll their children in high-performing charter schools or magnet schools. Such students could end up being penalized because their parents worked hard to get them a better education.

In addition, students won’t be allowed to see their own scores of privilege or disadvantage, which means they won’t be able to challenge ratings that are off base. And it’s not impossible to imagine families working the system by setting up phony addresses in low-income areas. That may sound a little crazy — but it’s no more so than Photoshopping applicants’ faces onto the bodies of athletes, which was allegedly done for some of the students caught up in the recent college admissions scandal.

The disadvantage score seems ill-thought out. But it also leads to bigger questions about the SAT generally: Is it an effective measure of future college success for all students or only those who have not faced tremendous adversity? Or does it work only when students are compared with those of similar backgrounds? If so, what’s the point? It’s reasonable to think that a proctored, standardized exam can at least provide a check on inflated grades and subjective college recommendations, but a state’s own standards tests could do the same without costing families any additional money. All eyes are on the UC study of the tests. Maybe it will point the way to a fairer and more rational way forward.

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