New College Board Score Puts a Value on Hardship

Amy Wright, Head Guidance Counselor at Western Albemarle High School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

High school seniors applying to college may soon have a new score added to their admissions portfolios, one they weren’t tested for and won’t ever see, but one that may tip the scales of admission nonetheless. Slated to be piloted at 150 colleges and universities this fall, a composite measure of a student’s “Disadvantage Level” will focus attention on an applicant’s economic and societal disadvantage relative to other applicants, to highlight those students who have done more with less.

The College Board—the not-for-profit company that orchestrates PSAT and SAT testing and high school AP classes—is offering a new optional tool for college admissions officers called an Environmental Context Dashboard for each student applicant, of which the Disadvantage Level score is one part. David Coleman, the College Board’s president, said, “The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges . . . It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked.”

The “Adversity Score”

Three sections make up the Dashboard. The first is the student’s SAT score, shown relative to the scores of other students at their high school in a graph. The second section contains school-related information such as its locale, senior class size, and the percent of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, as well as data on Advanced Placement class opportunities.

While the first two sections offer a general overview of a student’s high school setting, the third section presents a number between 1 and 100 which is the student’s Overall Disadvantage Level (ODL), dubbed the “adversity score” in national media reporting. This number is a summary percentile intended to represent how disadvantaged a student’s high school and neighborhood environments are relative to all other high schools and neighborhoods in that student’s state and across the country. So, for instance, an ODL of 80 means that student’s environment is more disadvantaged than 80% of all other high school or neighborhood environments, while a score lower than 50 indicates relative advantage.

Example image of the College Board’s new Environmental Context Dashboard. Source: College Board.

To calculate the ODL, the College Board uses a set of 16 factors (shown in the nearby table) gathered from census and proprietary sources to capture aspects of disadvantage in a student’s day-to-day life, such as median family income and neighborhood poverty rates, housing stability, and the education level of adults. None of these data points are specific to the student—all are computed for the census tract(s) where the student lives and attends high school, and all are weighted equally in arriving at the singular ODL. 

These 16 factors all represent elements of disadvantage in students’ environment that are outside of a student’s direct control, but that could impact his or her ability to score well on standardized tests like the SAT. The University of Richmond was one of 50 schools that piloted the Dashboard in its holistic review process last year, and found that it “provides a consistent delivery of data points,” according to Gil Villanueva, Dean of Admission. 

“It can be particularly insightful when we suspect a candidate is faced with extraordinary disadvantages and/or if we simply wish to learn more about them and their secondary schools,” said Villanueva. After the pilot program this fall, the College Board says that the Dashboard will be broadly available to all schools next year.

The University of Virginia has not yet adopted the Environmental Context Dashboard into its application review process, but, like most selective schools, it already performs a holistic review to get a sense of a student’s performance within the context of the school and community environment.

“More information is better than less,” said Gregory Roberts, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at U.Va. “[The Overall Disadvantage Level] provides a piece of information. It’s not used to make an admissions decision; it’s used to better understand the community in which a student lives.”

However, a 2018 University of Michigan study tested whether admissions decisions would change when using the Dashboard at eight selective universities. The study found that “adversity background and contextual academic achievement presented on the Dashboard offered important information about students that influenced admissions decisions, particularly to admit more low-SES [socio-economic status] applicants.”*

Students and parents who have heard of the “adversity score” have likely heard a few of the misconceptions surrounding how the Overall Disadvantage Level is measured and presented. For instance, contrary to some reporting, the ODL is not applied directly to a student’s SAT score to adjust that number up or down. The SAT score is reported separately from the ODL, which is a stand-alone number on the Dashboard. Also, a student cannot avoid having the College Board report an ODL to colleges by instead taking the ACT. The College Board will convert ACT scores to SAT scores using a set of standardized conversion tables and will report the ODL on the Dashboard with the converted score.


Reaction to the announcement of the new Dashboard tool has been mixed as parents and high school counselors have raised concerns over how the ODL is computed and communicated. Chief among these concerns is transparency—the College Board will only send a student’s Dashboard information to colleges and universities, meaning students, parents, and guidance counselors will never see it. Even if they could, checking the score for accuracy is not possible because the College Board will not reveal precisely how the ODL is calculated nor the exact data points that go into it.

A lower overall disadvantage level (below 50 on the 100-point scale) indicates a less adverse (i.e., more privileged) school and neighborhood environment, which causes angst for some parents who worry that their higher income, educational achievements, and upscale neighborhood may actually reduce their child’s chances of admission at selective universities.

“Some people feel that everything that doesn’t help you hurts you,” said Roberts, “but this tool is not designed to disadvantage students.” Roberts sees negative response to the Dashboard as part of a pattern of rising anxiety among applicants. “I do think the concerns reflect the intensely emotional and increasingly stressful process of applying to college, where everything is magnified.”

Still, a stark reality for students and their parents is the zero-sum nature of college acceptances, which must ultimately be capped each year. Florida State University assistant vice president for academic affairs John Barnhill, whose school piloted the Dashboard last year, drove this point home in a Wall Street Journal interview when he said, “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.”

The statistical nature of census tract data can cause reliability problems. Census tracts are defined by population, aiming for an average of about 4,000 people in each tract, which means that tracts are geographically small in densely-populated cities and quite large in rural areas. Western Albemarle’s high school district encompasses four census tracts, two of which cover about 100 square miles each. A student’s “neighborhood” ODL is based on the census tract that contains his or her house, and “high school” ODL is the average of all census tracts in the district.

Thus, a WAHS student who lives in tract 110, which runs along Ivy Road and contains Farmington, Ednam, Bellair, and Ivy, will have a much lower (more advantaged) ODL than a student who lives in tract 112.01, containing Batesville and Greenwood, which has higher rates of poverty and rental housing and lower education levels. Exceptions to the norm, such as a low-income family living in tract 110, will not be reflected in that student’s ODL, so his or her relative disadvantage will be missed in the score. 

Questions remain about how the College Board will handle cases of foreign students and private school or homeschooled applicants, who would lack some neighborhood or high school data, and why certain factors are included on the Dashboard at all. Four factors provide information about “AP Opportunity” as a measure of high school environment, including how many AP classes and tests are taken and the average AP score. As the College Board administers (and charges hefty fees for) AP classes and tests, inclusion of these factors gives the appearance of self-promotion. 

(The College Board did not respond to multiple Crozet Gazette requests for specific information related to the factors used in the Environmental Context Dashboard.)

Painting a Picture

WAHS’ head guidance counselor Amy Wright says that she and other counseling offices are mostly in the dark about how the Dashboard will ultimately affect students’ admission chances. “While a lot of this data is already on the school profile [a standard information sheet about each high school used by admissions offices], this tool might allow them to paint a broader picture of the student, especially compared to others in their high school, to see if he’s a good fit depending on the college’s philosophy,” she said. “But we do have a lot of pockets of different neighborhoods that attend Western, and I do think students ought to be able to at least see their score.”

Some school officials expect that the Dashboard will add unnecessary strain to already-stressed students and their parents as they apply to college, but others feel the worry may be unfounded. “I don’t think it’s going to affect most people in the Western district,” said David Oberg, Albemarle School Board representative for White Hall District. “It’s window dressing, and makes us feel better about ourselves, but it’s not going to substantively impact admissions. People will worry, but if you do well on the SAT it’s not going to make any difference.”

In terms of defining oneself beyond numbers, some stories are simply better told by the applicant. If a student has struggled with adversity such as illness or disability, family tragedy, neglect, or other unique hardship, those accounts will be most effectively relayed through personal essays and teacher and counselor recommendation letters. But as larger universities strive to obtain economic diversity in their entering classes, the ECD may serve a purpose by contextualizing student achievements in regions or high schools less well known to college admissions officers.

Several Virginia institutions such as William & Mary and Christopher Newport University are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “We hope the coming year, and the opportunity to see what [the ECD] looks like, will inform whether or not we ultimately incorporate it into our recruitment outreach efforts or application review process moving forward,” said Tim Wolfe, Dean of Admission at William & Mary.

“[College admissions] is a puzzle and there are a lot of differently-shaped pieces, and our job is to not only enroll a class but to build a class that paints a picture of strong representation on many dimensions,” said U.Va.’s Roberts. “From what I’ve learned [about the ECD], I think it could be a useful tool in helping to do that.” 

*Bastedo et al. “Identifying Contexts for Achievement: Field Experiments on Information Use in College Admissions.” Submitted to Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis October 4, 2018.

What Goes into a Student’s Disadvantage Level?

The College Board’s new Environmental Context Dashboard contains a score of a student’s “Overall Disadvantage Level,” which is calculated using the following 16 factors in two ways. For the Neighborhood environment, these factors are based on estimates for the census tract in which a student lives. For the High School environment, all of these same factors (except the probability of being a victim of a crime) are based on average estimates for all census tracts which that high school serves (i.e., the high school’s entire district).

  • Median family income
  • Percentage of all households in poverty (poverty rate)
  • Percentage of families with children in poverty
  • Percentage of households with food stamps
  • Percentage of families that are single-parent families with children and in poverty
  • Percentage of families that are single-parent families with children
  • Percentage of housing units that are rental
  • Percentage of housing units that are vacant
  • Rent as a percentage of income
  • Percentage of adults with less than a 4-year college degree
  • Percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma
  • Percentage of adults with agriculture jobs
  • Percentage of adults with nonprofessional jobs
  • Percentage unemployed
  • College-going behavior
  • Probability of being a victim of a crime

Source: College Board



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