The Reasoning Behind the SAT’s New ‘Disadvantage’ Score

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The CEO and vice president explain what they’re hoping to accomplish by factoring adversity into the standardized test.

“What these years were spent on was examining if the data [on poverty and disadvantage] was looked at together in a really clear way with the SAT, could it help admissions officers find kids they wouldn’t have seen? And do those students go on to flourish?” Coleman says. “And the evidence is that they do succeed, that they are resourceful.”

The addition of this new number marks a shift in how the College Board wants admissions offices to think about SAT scores, which have been criticized as a proxy for wealth and privilege, not college-readiness or intellect. Higher test scores correlate with higher family income and education levels, and white and Asian students generally tend to score higher than their Latino or black peers. While one additional metric alone can’t fix these inequities, the inclusion of the disadvantage level is a step in the right direction, Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard professor and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, told me.

“It is giving us a look at how poverty and inequality directly affect students’ college destinations, as it relates to [test scores]” Jack says. “When students sit down [to take] the SAT, that doesn’t mean that everybody’s at the same starting line.”

Factoring in the influence of students’ environments has not been done before in such a systematic way,  Jeff Selingo, the author of There Is Life After College and an Atlantic contributor, told me. Many admissions offices that do “holistic admissions” will already look at a high school’s profile, a description of the student body and curricular offerings that is provided by the high school and accompanies a student’s application, to get a sense of how a student stacks up against their local peers, Selingo says. For example, if a student’s SAT scores fall in a low percentile nationwide, but she is a high-performing outlier at a school with generally low test scores, admissions officers will take that into account. But school profiles don’t include information about students’ home neighborhoods, neighborhoods, which doesn’t capture students who commute into wealthier areas to attend well-resourced schools but live in neighborhoods with high crime, eviction, and home vacancy rates.

Knowing the constellation of home- and family-related factors shaping a student’s transcript would make admissions more truly holistic , Jack says. He knows this firsthand, as a black scholar who became a  first-generation college student after getting a scholarship to attend an elite private high school. Even if students attend high-performing high schools, he says, conditions such as housing instability and family turmoil can influence their lives in profound ways.

“I’ve worked with students who were homeless, who did not know when they left school whether they would have a place to sleep for the night. They had to somehow compartmentalize that kind of insecurity at home, but still focus on what’s going on at school,” Jack says. Of students who have grown up surrounded by gun violence, he asks: “Can you concentrate in the same way in your literature class, when you heard three gunshots ring outside your door the night before?”

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