This winter, the University of Washington was one of 50 schools nationwide to quietly pilot a new tool that helps admissions officers measure the degree of hardship an applicant faced along the way to college.
It was the only university in Washington to use the new data, developed by the College Board.
Last month, the College Board, the nonprofit business behind the SAT college-admissions test, unveiled the tool to the public. Already, it has drawn fire from critics, including some who think standardized tests shouldn’t be used at all in admissions and others who complain that the College Board isn’t being transparent about how it comes up with the data.
UW officials argue that the tool, called the Environmental Context Dashboard, gives a more precise picture of the obstacles a student might have faced in high school and earlier. The tool, which has been dubbed by some news outlets as an “adversity index,” uses 15 factors to determine the level of difficulty and strife an applicant has faced.
It gives “better, richer, more complete data” than what the UW itself has been able to develop, said Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment management. It shows, among other things, the percentage of adults in a student’s neighborhood who attended college, the median income in the neighborhood, the crime rate and the percentage of people who own their own condos or homes.
A student might earn a high score on the index if he or she grew up in a low-income neighborhood, where the crime rate was high and few people had college degrees. Admissions officials could then take that score into account in weighing all the other components of a college application, including the SAT score and a student’s transcript. The score could help a college assemble a more diverse student body. Recent research has drawn a link between stressful, traumatic events in a child’s life and lower test scores and academic performance.
It’s similar to what the UW has been doing since 2006, when it adopted a “holistic” review process that aims to place students in the context of their environments, Ballinger said. The UW adopted that process in part because of a citizens initiative passed in 1999 that prevented public colleges and universities from using race in admissions — a rule that caused minority enrollment to plunge. This year, the state Legislature passed a law that rolls back that rule, but another initiative could restore it.
The UW wants to identify those often-overlooked students whose test scores or transcripts don’t reflect that they were “swimming against the current” in their educational lives, Ballinger said.
Ballinger was a trustee for the College Board when its staff first presented the ideas behind the Environmental Context Dashboard to the trustees more than two years ago. At the time, he thought: “This is good work. This could be impactful.”
The UW is one of the most selective schools in the state; last year, about 54% of in-state students who applied were admitted as freshmen.
The university requires students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Nationwide, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have moved away from standardized admissions tests in recent years, among them Washington State University, Whitman College and the University of Puget Sound.
Paul Kanarek, a critic of standardized admissions testing, said he believes the tests are falling out of favor because they are biased, especially against African Americans and women, and exacerbate educational inequality. “This is the exam that overwhelmingly favors privileged people,” said Kanarek, a managing partner at a California-based college counseling service called Collegewise.
Kanarek said the new dashboard is only serving to protect the SAT from critics — like him — who argue that standardized tests are closely linked to a student’s family income, and can be gamed with tutoring and coaching.
But College Board officials say the new score helps colleges take this into account. “Environmental and school factors clearly impact student achievement and success and add important insight into a student’s resilience that colleges and universities may want to consider when reviewing applicants,” said College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg in an email.
The College Board’s CEO, David Coleman, has said that the score allows admissions directors to identify students who perform extraordinarily well in demanding circumstances.
And Ballinger says the dashboard has nothing to do with the SAT score; rather, “it’s a much richer contextualization of environments in which a student lived and learned.”
For the “readers” — the team of staffers whose job it is to read college applications and make decisions about who gets in — the score added to the information the UW has about an applicant. It has helped, as well, with out-of-state applicants, although Ballinger said the focus was on resident students.
The College Board plans to offer the tool for free to all colleges next year, Goldberg said, even those that don’t require the SAT.
WSU doesn’t plan to use the index, said Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president for marketing and communications. The university, which admitted about 73% of applicants in 2017, places more emphasis on a prospective student’s grade-point average than a standardized test score because it has found that GPA and overall academic preparation are better predictors of academic success.
Western Washington University, which admitted 85% of applicants in 2017, will likely consider using it as a way to “refine our admission processes and to strengthen our commitment to access and inclusion,” said Cezar Mesquita, director of WWU admissions.
Whitman College, a private school in Walla Walla that admitted 52% of applicants in 2017, said its admission process is already highly individualized and takes the context of each student’s education into account. The school is test-optional and uses a holistic review process, said Josh Jensen, vice president for enrollment and communications, in an email. He said the college would be “open to using this — or any tool that helps us better understand our applicants — in future years.”
Seattle University, a private Jesuit school which admitted 74% of its applicants in 2017, is “very open to capturing the Environmental Context Dashboard scores from students that provide that data and then examining whether the data provides any predictive benefit in our review process,” said Melore Nielsen, the school’s dean of admissions, in an email. The university, which requires the ACT or SAT, already uses a holistic approach to admissions, she said.
The University of Puget Sound is a test-optional school, and didn’t know much about the index beyond what it learned in a conference session led by the UW and College Board, a spokesman said. At the Tacoma private school, the SAT and ACT are only required for applicants who were home-schooled or who attended secondary schools that do not assign grades.
Could people use the dashboard to cheat — moving to a low-income neighborhood, for example, to get a better score? Sure, Ballinger said.
But cheating happens in admissions already, he said — witness the Varsity Blues scandal, in which wealthy parents paid a counseling coach to help fraudulently inflate their children’s test scores and bribe college officials.
“I’m sure all sorts of things happen, and all sorts of people try to game the system … everything from filling out their children’s applications to trying to pull any strings they possibly can,” he said.