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SAT To Score Students' 'Disadvantages' To Try To Even The Playing Field

SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a bookstore in New York City.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a bookstore in New York City.

The College Board has been testing a tool that could give the millions of students who take the SATs every year a score measuring their economic hardships and other disadvantages, the nonprofit said Thursday.

The Environmental Context Dashboard includes information about students' high schools, including the rate of teens who receive free or reduced lunch, and their home life and neighborhoods, such as average family income, educational attainment, housing stability and crime.

The dashboard "shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less," said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, which administers the SAT. "It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked."

The scores won't be revealed to SAT test-takers, but schools will see the numbers when reviewing college applications.

Fifty colleges and universities, including Yale, Florida State University and Trinity University, took part in a pilot program last year to test what some observers are calling an "adversity score."

College Board officials say they plan to expand the program to more schools this year and that the tool will be made available for free.

Early results from the pilot show that when an applicant's socioeconomic profile is considered alongside SAT scores, more lower-income students see acceptance letters from colleges and universities in their mailboxes.

"No single test score should ever be examined without paying attention to this critical context," Coleman said in a statement.

The College Board says that after the pilot, admissions officials reported that the tool was most useful when evaluating "borderline" students whose acceptance was a close call.

One school official told the College Board: "It allowed us to rely less on stereotypes, assumptions, or incomplete data and more on hard facts and statistics."

News about the pilot comes as college admissions officials fret that the U.S. Supreme Court could take up a case that would significantly alter how schools use affirmative action to make campuses more racially diverse.

The new dashboard does not look at race, instead focusing on a student's "resourcefulness." Still, some school officials say the tool will result in more racial diversity on college campuses.

Florida State University officials told The Wall Street Journal that the socioeconomic data helped boost nonwhite enrollment to 42% from 37%.

Tiffany Jones, director of higher-education policy at The Education Trust, said she welcomes schools relying less on standardized test scores. Yet she doubts that the new dashboard data will really make college campuses more racially diverse.

"I don't think this action from College Board of SAT alone will drastically change the opportunities for low-income students and students of color," Jones told NPR. "You cannot use proxies for race. That's probably the weakest part of the strategy."

How race and class figure into college admissions has been in the spotlight. The college admissions fraud scandal laid bare the extraordinary lengths to which many wealthy parents went in trying to get their children accepted to some of the country's most selective universities.

And a high-profile lawsuit in which Asian American applicants accuse Harvard University of discrimination by forcing them to clear a higher admissions bar is still playing out in the courts. The case still awaits a judge's decision.

This isn't the first time an SAT pilot has tried to factor in socioeconomic data.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, helped oversee the SAT in the late-1990s during a similar pilot. Known as the Strivers program, it assigned students a score that included race-based and economic factors.

The backlash from schools, parents and commentators was swift, and the program was quickly killed.

"We got hosed," Carnevale said. "There was literally a national outcry."

He said since the College Board's new gauge does not weigh racial factors, it may prove to be more popular.

NPR education correspondent Cory Turner contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.