Last Thursday, the College Board announced via the Wall Street Journal that it has been testing out a project where, along with students' SAT scores, colleges see each student's "Overall Disadvantage Level," or their "adversity score."
In this article, we'll go over what we know so far about the adversity score and how it might affect college admissions. We'll also give some tips on how to limit what information about you the College Board can use to calculate your adversity score.
We'll keep this article updated as new information comes out on the adversity score, so be sure to check back periodically.
What Is the SAT Adversity Score?
The SAT adversity score, also known as a student's Overall Disadvantage Level, is a number that the College Board calculates from information it has about different aspects of an SAT test taker's life about the disadvantages they've faced. This score is visible to colleges and institutional score report recipients only; if you're a test-taker and you look at your SAT scores in your College Board account, you won't see this information.
The College Board states that the adversity score is on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 denoting test takers with the least amount of hardship and 0 the test takers with the most amount of hardship.
Just what information goes into the adversity score calculation, though? The Wall Street Journal initially listed 12 factors that were used to determine a test taker's "adversity index." Further elaboration about how this adversity score is shared with colleges can be seen in the screenshot posted by the College Board:
In the above image, you can see that the "Overall Disadvantage Level" (aka the adversity score) appears as part of an "Environmental Context" report, which is just one of several reports shown on the dashboard through which colleges view test takers' scores in context.
From this screenshot, it's also possible to see that the "Disadvantage Level" calculated by the College Board draws from data in broad categories like college attendance, family stability, median family income, housing stability, education level, and crime, for both the applicant's high school and neighborhood. The only information on the Environmental Context Dashboard based on information about test-takers as invididuals is their SAT score.
As per the College Board, the Environmental Context Dashboard (including adversity scores) was first used in a pilot study of 50 schools 2018-2019, with expansion to 150 schools planned for Fall 2019 and a more widespread release in the following year. Specific schools named as having had access to the adversity score for this past year's admission cycle include Florida State University, University of Michigan, Trinity, and Yale.
How the SAT Adversity Score Is Calculated
In contrast to the initial reporting from the Wall Street Journal, the adversity score does not take things like whether test-takers are English Language Learners or have differing AP opportunities into account.
The following information is included on the Environmental Context Dashboard but is not actually used to calculate a student's "Overall Disadvantage Level" (aka adversity score).
SAT Score in High School Context
|Applicant's SAT score compared to the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile scores from their high school*|
High School General Information
|Senior class size|
|Free/reduced-price lunch rate|
|Average SAT score of colleges students from that high school attend*|
|%age of seniors taking an AP Exam*|
|Average number of AP Exam taken*|
|Average AP score from that high school*|
|Number of unique AP exams administered at that high school*|
Instead, the adversity score is calculated using the following 31 publicly-available data points on test-takers' neighborhoods and high school environments*:
Income and Family Structure
- median family income
- poverty rate
- % of families with children in poverty
- % of families that are single-parent families with children
- % of families that are single-parent families with children in poverty
- % of households with food stamps
- % of housing units that are rental
- % of housing units that are vacant
- what % of income rent is
- % of adults with less than a 4-year college degree
- % of adults with less than a high school diploma
- % of adults with agriculture jobs
- % of adults with nonprofessional jobs
- % unemployed
- college-going behavior
Probability of being a victim of a crime (neighborhood-level only)
*As of this article's publication, it's not entirely clear how the College Board is calculating things like "percentage of housing units that are vacant" for test-takers' high school environments (since in general, teachers do not actually live in schools). We'll update with more information as it becomes available.
Why Did the College Board Create the Adversity Score?
Based on quotes from the College Board's CEO David Coleman, it's clear that the main reason for this score is that the College Board is trying to show that the effort and "resourcefulness" needed to get a certain score differs drastically between test takers, depending on certain advantages or disadvantages the test taker starts out with.
This is not the first time the College Board or the SAT's creator ETS has tried to contextualize SAT scores for colleges. According to the Wall Street Journal, one attempt to do this happened in the early 1990s, when Winton Manning (an ETS researcher) worked on creating a modified SAT score that took "background factors" into account called the Measure of Academic Talent. Far more extreme a change than the current adversity score, the MAT ended up being scrapped ostensibly due to lack of resources.
In 1999, the ETS decided to take another crack at giving colleges more information about how SAT scores should be weighed. Through the Wall Street Journal, ETS announced that it was creating a program called Strivers, which would identify students whose actual SAT score exceeded their expected SAT score by 200 points or more as strivers. This expected SAT score was calculated using "14 different categories, including family income, parents' education level and high-school socioeconomic mix" (Wall Street Journal). (Sound familiar?)
After public outcry, ETS decided not to go forward with the Strivers program in 1999.
Archival footage of ETS circa 1999 before they announced the Strivers program.
In 2019, it's not entirely surprising that the College Board is yet again trying out the idea that they should give more information to colleges about SAT test takers than just a single test score.
As more and more colleges are becoming test-optional or test-flexible and events like the recent college admissions scandal and the more regular SAT/ACT cheating scandals continue to occur, it makes sense that the College Board would want to give colleges a reason to continue using the SAT as part of college admissions.
While the information that the College Board is using to calculate the adversity scores for students is available to colleges anyway, being able to use a single score to compare students will save schools a lot of work; it's part of the logic behind using standardized test scores in the first place, after all. Or to look at it from a more optimistic point of view, the new adversity score will make it easier for colleges to identify students whose got the score against the odds, rather than with them.
Now that we've discussed some of the general reasons why the College Board might have decided to implement the adversity score, we're going to move on to going over specific positive and negative aspects of the program.
Pros of the SAT Adversity Score
Although it's easy to dismiss as pointless or silly, the SAT adversity score does have some positive features.
#1: It's a Sign the College Board Is Trying
In recent years, the College Board has taken substantial steps towards trying to level the SAT prep playing field.
By providing the entire Official Guide to the SAT, including eight official practice tests, for free on CollegeBoard.org, the College Board instantly became more accessible to test takers around the world of varying income levels.
College Board's partnership with Khan Academy is another step in the direction of removing economic barriers from SAT prep (even if some aspects of the partnership means that relying on Khan Academy alone to prep won't necessarily be enough for everyone).
As positive as they are, though, none of these measures so far have resulted in eliminating the gap between students of different races, income level, and parents' education level. So the fact that the College Board is seeking to account for this difference by giving test takers an explicit score that says "oh, this is why there might be that difference" could be seen as another attempt to get rid of SAT score gaps.
#2: More Data = More Robustness
The College Board regularly releases data on how certain factors like race and household income can affect SAT scores, even controlling for other factors. However, these reports don't really get into more complicated effects of how multiple factors interact (e.g. gender, household income, and highest level of parental education achieved), likely because it is difficult to explain these interactions and because the effects might not reach statistical significance.
For the adversity score, however, statistical significance is not really relevant. Rather than having to justify why the 31 factors used in the adversity score have a significant effect on SAT scores, the College Board is just calculating the adversity score and handing it to colleges with a "Here, this is the Overall Disadvantage Level of the test taker." The colleges can then decide whether or not that's a metric worth considering, which brings me to the next pro of the adversity score.
#3: It's Not Mandatory for Colleges to Consider
Just because the College Board provides this data to colleges doesn't mean that admissions officers have to take it into account. In contrast to the proposed early '90s MAT, the adversity score will not actually change an applicant's SAT score.
Colleges who want to build more economically diverse classes can use applicants' adversity scores to inform their admissions policies, while colleges who place less importance on this can choose to ignore it.
#4: It Doesn't Explicitly Use Race as a Factor
Unlike the previous "Strivers" program, which worked best when race was used as a factor, the current SAT adversity score skirts using race as an explicit factor in its calculations. Many of the factors used have traditionally been strongly correlated with race when it comes to SAT performance, so the adversity score still captures some of that discrepancy, even though race itself is omitted.
Why is the College Board using this roundabout approach to try to account for SAT performance differences between test takers of different races? The recent Wall Street Journal article makes the insightful observation that this may help schools maintain diversity if even the appearance of race-based affirmative action is outlawed.
Since the adversity score is calculated by the College Board, a third party, and the schools (presumably) don't know exactly what weight is given to various factors, only that race isn't one of them, then they may have a better chance at keeping the right to use the adversity score as a way to create diversity in their incoming classes. Because of this, we've landed on the side of the adversity score not including race being a marginally positive factor, but we'll have to see how things play out.
Cons of the SAT Adversity Score
Despite the positive aspects of the adversity score, we have some concerns about how this new feature will affect testing and admissions.
#1: It Doesn't Actually Close the Score Gaps
While it's admirable that the College Board is willing to publicly acknowledge that there are score differences between students from different backgrounds, and that it's harder for some students to get to a certain SAT score than for others, the adversity score doesn't actually change any of this.
Imagine that you're talking to a teacher about how you've noticed that there is one female composer on the syllabus for a music survey class, and your teacher responds by giving you background into why it was harder for women to make their livings as composers or publicly assert they were composers, particularly if they were women of color. Yes, it's helpful to have that background to contextualize why fewer female composers are widely known, but that still doesn't change the fact that you're only listening to music by men.
And don't get me started on Amy Beach Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.
#2: None of This Is New Information
The data going into the adversity score calculations is data that colleges can access from the public domain anyway. In compiling the data necessary to calculate the adversity score for each test taker and then presenting schools with those numbers, the College Board is essentially doing a huge amount of labor for free for schools.
I discussed earlier in this article that a possible motivation for the College Board doing this free labor is to give schools a reason to keep using the SAT as part of college admissions. The fact that the College Board is doing admissions offices' jobs for them with this adversity score does not directly harm test takers and applicants. However, it does indirectly mean that the College Board is spending more of its resources trawling through data to give colleges information they have already and less resources on improving the SAT and making actual progress on eliminating score gaps.
#3: It Will Increase Anxiety Among Test Takers and College Applicants
It's not surprising that the College Board has so far declined to explain exactly how they calculate each student's adversity score; there's really no advantage to them doing so. The opacity of the whole adversity score program, however, from students not knowing it was going on at all last year or what schools were/are using it to students not being able to see it or know how it was calculated, is likely to increase anxiety and stress levels among SAT test takers and college applicants using SAT scores.
We'll update this if and when more information comes out, because some of the categories listed are so broadly named ("college-attending behavior," I'm looking at you) that it's hard to know what they mean. And, speaking as a former high schooler, knowing that there's yet another part of the college admissions process that you can't control, can't see, but affects your admission would have driven me even further up the wall.
#4: There's a Disproportionate Effect on Domestic Applicants
Something the College Board didn't really address in any of its public statements through news organizations is how the new adversity score is going to be more easily calculated for US test takers than for international test takers.
All of the data used to calculate the adversity score come from public records. And although some countries may have this information published freely in easily accessible formats, it's not a stretch to imagine that it's going to be a lot easier to gather things like housing values and vacancy rates for students who live in the United States.
If schools are aware of this discrepancy and are specifically looking to increase their diversity when it comes to test takers in the US with certain adversity scores, fine. But it's inevitable that this is going to lead to some US applicants feeling like international applicants are getting a leg up in this regard.
#5: Factors Are Still Too Broad
Even though the adversity score takes 31 factors into account, some of these factors are still relatively broad or limited.
Take a factor like "college-going behavior." Does this refer to the percentage of people in the neighborhood/parents who went to a 2-year college/some college but dropped out/any college at all? (If so, that's a double factoring of "% not attending a 4-year college" into the adversity score.) Whether people attended public or private schools? What degree you earned? What the average college-going rate is for parents of students at your school? In your county? State? Country?
I realize that it's impossible for the College Board to get really granular with all of these factors, particularly since they're relying on publicly-available data, but that's why college admissions offices look at specific information about things like parent education level, rather than a score that aggregates that along with other information.
What Does the New Adversity Score Mean for Your Admissions Chances?
Because the fact that there is an adversity score is still relatively fresh, it's possible there may be changes to how the adversity score is used by schools or if the College Board continues with this program (since it's still being tested on a relatively small sample of schools).
The best evidence of how the adversity score might affect your chances comes from the two schools discussed in the Wall Street Journal article, Yale and FSU. The dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale was quoted about how the adversity score was a positive influence in building a freshman class with more diversity. In the article, it was also noted that the assistant vice president for academic affairs at FSU stated "SAT adversity scores helped boost nonwhite enrollment in the incoming freshman class."
If you use your SAT Essay-analytical skills, you'll notice that the Yale and FSU representatives are pretty vague about the affect the adversity score has had (e.g. "boost nonwhite enrollment" could mean either that nonwhite enrollment doubled or that one more nonwhite student enrolled).
Still, based on this admittedly small sample size, the clear commonality is that the adversity score is being used by colleges who have access to it to increase diversity in admissions to some extent. This is unsurprising—it's hard to imagine what else schools would admit to using the adversity score for.
If you're a test taker who could reasonably assume you'd have a low adversity score (two-parent household in a wealthy neighborhood with lots of parents with jobs involving post-graduate degrees), then it is possible your chances of admission may be negatively affected by the adversity score (assuming the schools you apply to are one of the 150 schools the College Board plans to have this program rolled out to in the fall). The provocative quote from the assistant vice president for academic affairs at FSU with which the Wall Street Journal chose to end its article puts it this way:
"If I am going to make room for more of the [poor and minority] students we want to admit and I have a finite number of spaces, then someone has to suffer and that will be privileged kids on the bubble." (Wall Street Journal).
Granted that the Wall Street Journal literally has "Wall Street" in its name and its own motivations for choosing the quotes it did to publish, the FSU representative isn't necessarily wrong (and presumably would know for his own school, at the very least).
If a school you're applying to uses the adversity score and you're a middle-of-the-road applicant with few disadvantages, it might not be as easy as it was previously to get into some of the colleges you want to get into.
One of the pieces of anecdotal feedback the College Board reports in its post about the adversity score tends to back up this assumption:
"For some admissions offices, the tool was most useful for borderline acceptances and students who went to committee. For others, it was valuable for students from nonfeeder high schools and areas they are less familiar with." (bolding mine)
So it's likely that the effect of the adversity score will be most felt by applicants who were already on the edge of acceptance/rejection for schools.
If there are two applicants who have the same SAT score, have borderline GPAs, letters of recommendation, and personal statements, it's conceivable that colleges who see and use the adversity score would some of the time choose the applicant with the higher adversity score. But as you can tell from our qualifying and italicizing throughout this article, it's not a certainty.
One final point about the adversity score is that college admissions is not actually a zero-sum game. Yes, each school has a target number of students that they want to admit, but they're not going to reject you because they're one over their quota of admitted students with overall levels of disadvantage. The adversity score as a way to attempt to recognize the achievements of students who had to overcome certain disadvantages does not nullify the achievements of students who didn't.
Recap: Understanding the SAT Adversity Score
We know this is kind of a long article, so here's a quick rundown of some of the main takeaways:
- The College Board is trying out giving some schools an adversity score for individual test takers, which is supposed to indicate how the test taker's "Overall Disadvantage Level" compares to the average test taker.
- The adversity score uses information about test-takers' neighborhood and high school environments, but does not use any information specific to any individual test-taker
- The College Board may be doing this to try to account for the score gap between students with different backgrounds or to try to make sure colleges don't do away with standardized testing as part of admissions (or a combination of the two).
- The factors used to calculate the adversity score include some traditionally associated with race, but do not explicitly include race.
- The existence of an adversity score could be good because it shows the College Board is at least making some attempt to ameliorate score gap issues, draws from different factors that it was previously hard to account for, and isn't mandatory for colleges to consider.
- The existence of an adversity score isn't great because it doesn't actually fix the score gap problem, doesn't actually provide new information, is likely to increase anxiety among test takers and college applicants, will disproportionately affect domestic test takers, and still relies on some undefined categories of data for calculation.
- The people most affected by this will likely be students on the cusp of admittance, where having a high adversity score might tip the scales in favor of one applicant over another.
As a final take away, we want to stress that admissions is not going to necessarily be "easier" for applicants with higher adversity scores than it is for students with lower ones. The College Board just wants colleges to take into account that it was likely harder for a students with high adversity scores to get the scores they did on the SAT than for students with the same SAT score but lower adversity scores.
We expect to see more in the news about the new adversity score in the weeks and month to come, so stay tuned for updates to this article.
Us to the College Board right now.
What does it take to be an outstanding applicant, adversity aside? Learn how to get into the most elite universities in the US with PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng's guide on Harvard and the Ivy League.
You don't get to see the adversity score, but your SAT score report does show you lots of other interesting information. Find out what you can learn from your score report here.
Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.