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Adversity Score: College Board’s Intentions are Good, But Its Solution is Not

After the College Board announced it will provide an adversity score to every SAT score report it sends to colleges, many people, including representatives from the media, asked me if ACT is preparing something similar.

Let me start by saying that I appreciate the College Board’s effort to level the playing field for students. Like the College Board, ACT is a mission-driven nonprofit organization—we will do anything we can to improve equity by making our products and services affordable—and free for those who are from low-income families.

I acknowledge that a measurement of academic skills is only one of many factors that define readiness for college and future success, which is why at ACT we developed the Holistic Framework, a science-based framework that underlies our philosophy, our tests and our new learning products. We are focused on measuring and helping students improve their 21st-century and social emotional learning skills in addition to their academic skills. We work hard to establish the validity and reliability of those products.

But ACT will not follow the College Board’s example, even though I’m convinced of David Coleman’s good intentions.

I think the SAT “adversity score” is not a great idea. Let me explain.

Specific Concerns

Scores that affect students’ futures require transparency, validity and fairness. The algorithm and research behind this adversity score have not been published. It is basically a black box. Any composite score and any measurement in general requires transparency; students, teachers and admissions officers have the right to know. Now we can’t review the validity and the fairness of the score. And even if that changes, there is also an issue with the reliability of the measure, since many of the 15 variables come from an unchecked source—for example, when they are self-reported by the student.

The plan to report the adversity score only to the college is another example of not being transparent. If I were a student, I would become concerned or angry if the testing company would provide an adversity score to colleges without me knowing it, without me approving it, and without any of the end users understanding how this score is calculated.

I understand when David Coleman says, “We can’t ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.” But the test is not biased in itself, and the score is what it is, even though it is sometimes a messenger of what’s unequal in society, not in the student. The test should be the equalizer, but by providing an adversity score you invite its users to adjust scores with it, starting an equating practice that undermines the equalizing effect of the score scale and invites bad behavior.

If parents, teachers and counselors know test scores will be re-equated for adversity, some will attempt to manipulate and game the system. That is easy: You can use an address of someone you know who is living in a poor neighborhood or report lower family income.

Mutual Responsibilities

I acknowledge that testing companies have a responsibility in leveling the playing field for students, which is why we offer fee waivers for low-income students and ACT Academy, a personalized learning and practice platform, free to all students and teachers.

I acknowledge that underserved students face barriers that their more fortunate peers don’t, requiring them to work harder and show greater resilience to reach their goals. But I think admissions officers are already very capable of assessing students’ hurdles without an adversity score, and that assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit is a much better measure than neighborhood adversity.

While I don’t think the College Board’s solution is the right one, I do believe that virtually everyone involved in the educational process wants to increase opportunities for students, particularly those who could most benefit from our assistance. I think we all can agree on that.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.