Duke, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill will get new SAT ‘adversity scores’ for applicants

UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University will join N.C. State in testing a new system in which they’ll get an “adversity” score for some applicants that’s supposed to take into account the hardships they’ve faced in their lives.

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, announced Thursday that it will include the new adversity score alongside students’ SAT results that are reported to college admissions offices. The adversity score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood, The New York Times reported.

The new score, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, has been piloted at 50 colleges and universities and will be expanded to 150 institutions this fall. N.C. State said Friday it was among the 50 schools in the pilot.

Duke and UNC-CH confirmed Friday that they’ll begin receiving the information this fall on students applying to attend in 2020. They’ll get the adversity score as part of a packet of information called the Environmental Context Dashboard.

“At UNC-Chapel Hill we consider candidates holistically, taking into account everything we know about them and never forgetting that each is a unique and complicated individual,” Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said in a statement Friday.

“As part of these comprehensive and individualized assessments, we try to understand our students in the context of their families, schools, and communities,” he said. “Although the materials we receive from our candidates and their schools already reveal much of this context, we think the Environmental Context Dashboard can provide still more, and we plan to start using it next year.”

While Duke has agreed to receive the information, Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, said that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be used in making admissions decisions.

“Until we see this information in the context of everything else we know about the applicant it’s hard to know in which situations or for which applications it will be useful,” Guttentag said in an email Friday. “It’s like anything new we learn about our applicants — until we see how it fits into the context of what we already have it’s difficult to know how it’ll be used.”

Farmer said the adversity score will just be one part of the process for helping admit students to UNC-CH.

“No student can be defined fully by a single attribute, whether that attribute is a test score, a GPA or an activity outside the classroom,” Farmer said. “For that reason, we will continue to evaluate each student individually, comprehensively, and holistically, with the information provided by the dashboard one part of a much broader and more complicated portrait.”

Competitive admissions

It’s particularly challenging getting into Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

According to Duke, this year it accepted 3,064 of the more than 41,600 students who applied. Last year, UNC-Chapel Hill reported it had accepted 5,121 out of 46,967 applicants.

The new score, which will not be shared with students, will be reported on a scale of 1 to 100 with 50 being average. The higher the number the more disadvantaged the student.

David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, said the Environmental Context Dashboard “shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The impact of the new score is uncertain.

Jon Westover, N.C. State director of undergraduate admissions, said the score is so new that it will take some time to figure out what the information actually means and whether it should be incorporated into admissions decisions. He wants to track how the score relates to student performance for several years to gauge its reliability.

Admissions staff are familiar with North Carolina schools because that’s where the majority of N.C. State students come from, Westover said, so the score may be more useful for out-of-state areas that recruiters don’t visit.

But at Florida State University, one of the 50 schools in the pilot, John Barnhill, associate vice president for enrollment management, told the Los Angeles Times that the new system has already led to accepting more students in the 50 to 100 score range.

Despite the focus on the adversity score, Guttentag said colleges will be getting much more than just that from the new dashboard.

“Most articles I’ve seen have — inaccurately — suggested that it’s all about a single score, when the reality is that there’s a good amount of information that will be provided to colleges” Guttentag said. “All that said, I think that anything that gives us more insight into the context from which a student is applying has the potential to be useful as we make our decisions.

Barnhill told the Los Angeles Times that the dashboard has allowed Florida State to look at how a student’s test score compared with his or her school’s average, or housing stability in their ZIP Code.

Historically, affluent students have tended to earn higher scores on standardized exams such as the SAT.

Some parents worried

While the new score could help disadvantaged students, some families at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are worried. College counselors said they were swamped with calls from parents on Thursday, the New York Times reported.

Hafeez Lakhani, a college admissions coach in New York, told the New York Times that he had received emails from parents asking whether their children’s hard work in preparing for the SAT ‘‘would be completely negated just because we happen to have some means.”

News of the new score comes at a time where questions have been raised about both the fairness of college entrance exams and the admissions process.

More than 1,025 colleges and universities institutions now will evaluate all or many applicants without regard to test scores, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

“This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of ‘accumulated advantage’ which should not be used without an understanding of a student’s community and family background,” Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said in a statement.

The SAT and ACT are the two main college admissions exams taken by high school students. The SAT has slipped in prominence in North Carolina since the state began requiring students to take the ACT in 2012.

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