Editorial: Environmental index will help put SAT scores in context

The index will help raise the profile of overlooked students who have overcome adversity.
A Robinson High teacher helps students get ready for  SAT test. Times files
A Robinson High teacher helps students get ready for SAT test. Times files
Published June 14

Who deserves admission to a university? For stressed-out seniors and their parents, it can feel as if all the sweat, subtleties and varying circumstances of a dozen years of education are unfairly flattened into just two numbers: SAT and GPA. Facing criticism that the SAT measures privilege more than merit, the nonprofit group that produces the test has wisely started crafting a tool to put a student’s score into the context of their high school and neighborhood to give college admissions officers some comparative sense of the adversity they endured or the privilege they enjoyed.

The SAT is “a valid measure of a core set of skills” needed by college freshmen, College Board CEO David Coleman told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, defending the value of the test itself. But, he agrees, “The SAT does miss something.” And that, he says, is the “resourcefulness” of the student, something he believes the new index can capture.

If universities are going to require the SAT — and Florida public universities mandate the SAT or its competitor, the ACT — this is a reasonable effort to give the test scores more meaning and context This wouldn’t be necessary if the SAT gauged pure intellectual horsepower. It doesn’t. As a group, richer kids do better than poorer kids, as do students with better-educated parents. And as a group, Asian students do best on the test, followed by white, Hispanic and African-American students.

The new Environmental Context Dashboard has an index that runs from 0 to 100, with a higher number meaning more adversity. Among other things, it looks at the rigor of course offerings at the high school, the free lunch rate and the SAT scores of other students at the school. For the neighborhood — based on the census tract where the student lives — it looks at measures such as housing values and crime and poverty rates. Fifteen factors are considered in all, but a student’s SAT score is the only individual number. Everything else is an aggregate based on the school or the neighborhood, not the student’s individual circumstance.

There has been confusion and distrust about this new effort, and the College Board should be transparent about the numbers it uses and how it weights them. A student should know her school and neighborhood’s “adversity score” and how it is calculated. The index is too blunt, saying 50 is exactly the middle and that any score above it indicates adversity while any score below rates as privilege. A spectrum, perhaps divided into tenths, would be more meaningful.

Florida State University has been part of the study for two years, and John Barnhill, assistant vice president for academic affairs, likes “the consistency of the tool,” saying it has “a high degree of validity.” It has helped him to identify students who by raw numbers might not seem to be stellar candidates but have excelled in the broader context of their school and neighborhood.

“Adversity gives you more diversity,” Barnhill told the Times editorial board. In a state where affirmative action and race-based admissions have been banned, it has helped Florida State diversify its incoming class so now 42 percent are students of color. He is quick to add that although the index offers context for an SAT score, the student’s personal essays and other parts of the application fill out that student’s individual life story.

Grades and SAT scores combined can help predict students’ potential for college success. But until schools quit considering standardized tests, any tools that help place those numbers in more meaningful context make sense. The College Board has more work to do — particularly in being transparent — and should keep fine-tuning the index as it expands its use. But this effort should give admissions officers more relevant information to evaluate their applicants.