Big Promises, Big Data: Is the SAT’s New ‘Environmental Context’ Score a Tool to Personalize College Admissions, or Another Impersonal Data Point?

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It’s college-touring season at my house, and I am a goopy mess. I’m a total sucker for all of it. The unblemished idealism of the day. The bright new horizon revealed by each literal door the student tour guide opens. Even the obligatory lunch in the dining hall, where I try not to think about the bottomless well of revenue that is the mandatory meal plan.

My favorite thing, though, is the awkward excitement of the assembled teenagers who, their first real taste of agency attached to an impossibly monumental decision, have been given a temporary pass to focus on everything and anything but the stakes.

Especially on those tours where it’s apparent the magic has done its job and one of my kids is already mentally arranging the bunks in the dorm room, I listen as our hosts insist that every application is read from front to back in an effort to discern, test scores aside, the students’ attributes. The admissions process, they explain, is holistic.

I send up a silent prayer that it is, but like I said, I am a sucker. The kid I am currently touring with is No. 2, and this time, I am taking the spiel with a grain of salt. Holistic review, I learned with my first child, doesn’t mean an applicant doesn’t have to survive a gantlet of statistical hurdles.

To the many data points college admissions offices can now use to bolster or to cull, add the College Board’s environmental context dashboard — described by some media outlets as an adversity score. A 100-point index, it’s composed of census data about an applicant’s neighborhood and details about the high school.

Students cannot see their own scores. None of the data are particular to individual test-takers.

The idea, according to the College Board — which, not for nothing, sells and scores the SAT — is to get an admissions counselor to take a second look at applicants whose files are more impressive when considered in context. Yale, one of 50 colleges to pilot the index’s use last year, credits the score with doubling the number of low-income students admitted, to 20 percent of the incoming class.

That’s terrific — and yet, questions persist. Starting with the fact that colleges and universities are moving away, and remarkably quickly, from requiring college admissions tests. Not only are the exams losing favor, the SAT is becoming less popular than the ACT. The College Board is a nonprofit, but a wealthy one: Its 2017 revenues were more than $1.1 billion.

What this means is that if the environmental context dashboard comes to be perceived as providing a potential leg up, it will give students an incentive to take the SAT. Colleges will be able to submit ACT scores to the rival testing company for calculation of a score, should they find it valuable. ACT has said it has no plans to calculate its own environmental index.

Of course, the moment the words “advantage” and “college admissions” appear in the same sentence, the air acquires an electric charge. And, of course, parents of lesser means have immediately started fretting about the ways in which the affluent could game the system.

In an era when the most privileged among us are willing to turn their children into coxswains if it comes with a seat in an Ivy League scull, would some wealthy families go to the length of acquiring a downtrodden address? I am not suggesting adversity is an advantage. I’m arguing that circa 2019, affluent whites are still prone to seeing equity of opportunity as endangering their own perch on the economic ladder.

It seems more likely that middle-class families would make a quick visit to Zillow and come away panicked that they have neither Felicity Huffman’s checkbook nor the “boost” of a high adversity score.

Fun fact: The entrance exam was born as a playing-field leveler. In 1934, Harvard University began requiring all students to take the SAT, then a decade-old experimental tool for deciding who merited admission to a college. Harvard President James Conant, who would go on to chair the College Board’s predecessor, hoped for “equality of opportunity” to replace social station.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. Among students who took the ACT between 2014 and 2018, just 11 percent of African Americans met at least three college-ready benchmarks. Twenty-four percent of Latinos met that bar, as did 48 percent of whites. Of SAT takers from the class of 2018, 21 percent of African Americans met college-ready benchmarks, as did 31 percent of Latino students and 59 percent of white students.

Research has shown that high school grade-point averages are better predictors of college success — an especially cruel truth given that a low SAT or ACT score sends the message to both students and their prospective colleges that a teenager is not college material. And low-income test-takers do underestimate themselves: Even with good grades and accolades, they are 75 percent less likely to apply to selective colleges than affluent students with the same scores.

It’s this opportunity gap that the environmental context dashboard aims to bridge. To that end, the SAT commissioned research in which scholars from Harvard, the University of Michigan and Cornell joined the College Board’s own experts in examining the environmental context dashboard’s effectiveness. In a mock application process, they found, the score did prompt admissions officers to take a harder look at some students’ files — and especially at institutions that prioritized holistic review.

I don’t think, though, that the average family hearing the “holistic review” spiels knows how many numbers are truly at play in some college admissions processes. In contrast to a generation ago, the advent of the online Common Application means students can now apply to dozens of colleges at the push of a button.

Flooded with applicants, many admissions offices now consider a host of factors that don’t say anything about the likelihood that a student will succeed on their campus. Because colleges bank on a certain percentage of admitted students actually enrolling — known as the institution’s yield — many log “demonstrated interest” — the rate at which each applicant opens college emails, calls, visits and asks questions.

(Yield, too, has become fuel for our collective admissions hysteria: The higher the percentage of admitted students who claim their golden ticket, we assume, the more prestigious the college.)

Not only do colleges have to admit enough students but not too many, they must balance each class not just in terms of student characteristics but also by the number who can pay the sticker price versus those who need much or all of their costs of attendance subsidized.

By the time an admissions office has finished identifying good prospects with athletic talent, applicants from other countries, students who represent different parts of the United States and so on, there’s still that base question to be asked of those not winnowed from the stack: What might each hopeful student contribute to the class?

Two winters ago, when my oldest had finished touring colleges — where he fell hard for stories of brainy intercampus pranks and libraries suggestive of nothing more than Hogwarts — the rejections started to roll in. Some were expected, but others were a shock in light of his ACT score of 35 and two perfect subject-specific SATs.

A friend who works in higher ed suggested that some of my son’s efforts to seem self-sufficient and capable — not calling to ask for help, not asking to interview faculty or sit in on classes — worked against him. Some admissions offices, my friend said, go so far as to log how long applicants spend on the phone.

When he was turned down by the University of Minnesota, we cried foul. A couple of phone calls later, an admissions officer told us that his application had, in fact, not been reviewed at all because the spread between his GPA and ACT score was a hair too wide. The assumption in these cases, I’ve been told, is that the student is lazy — a scathing insult to a young man who got up in the dark to attend the extra classes required to earn an International Baccalaureate diploma.

In the end, it was holistic review that got him admitted to one of his top-choice colleges. His admissions counselor noted that the grade that had put his GPA .2 points below where the formula said it should be was a C earned in ninth grade — no deal breaker at all for them. But let’s be truthful: He’s the third generation of our family to go to college, one result of which is that he attended a high school whose graduation counselors had relationships to call on.

What of the teens the environmental index is supposed to assist? The whole concept behind quantifying disadvantage is to let admissions officers know that an individual may not have had access to the advanced classes, internships and extracurricular activities that could have made that application more well-rounded.

A couple of months ago, I attended a Signing Day event at a network of schools in Louisiana where, one by one, graduating seniors mounted a stage and unfurled T-shirts to announce to friends and family the college they had chosen. I cried my eyes raw thinking of the painstaking work and methodical planning these young people put into ensuring their own college readiness at a tender age, and into learning to present their ability to navigate the circumstances tallied in the environmental index as a strength.

In the end, a diverse freshman class is crucial — and not just for moral and societal reasons. Young people care about campus clubs and the atmosphere on the inevitable quad because they need a community where they will simultaneously feel at home and experience expanded horizons with classmates from vastly different backgrounds.

Colleges sell holistic review for good reasons. My ultimate fear is that, promises notwithstanding, an environmental context score will become just one more number used to determine, before that careful reading of the file, whether an applicant falls into a sweet spot.

Like a lot of folks, I’ll be watching to see whether the new scores are used to advance more students in competitive admissions, not screen them out, as the College Board has promised. But my breath won’t be bated.

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