As they sifted through applicants’ grades, test scores, and essays this year, several of the top colleges and universities in Massachusetts also took into account a controversial new measure that gauges the level of adversity the students faced.
At least six Massachusetts institutions were part of the 50-school nationwide group that tested the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard, commonly dubbed the “adversity index,” and others plan to do so in the upcoming admissions cycle.
Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Brandeis University, Wellesley College, and Amherst College are using the data. Smith College said it has signed a contract with the College Board, which also produces the SAT test, to try the dashboard when it reviews applications for the 2020 freshman class. Tufts University used the dashboard in a limited way previously to screen candidates for academic scholarships from outside groups and plans to use it as part of its regular review process in the upcoming admissions cycle.
The College Board calculates a range of socio-economic data from a student’s neighborhood and school, assigns it a disadvantage level, and shows how her SAT score compares to others in her school.
Since the College Board formally unveiled the dashboard in May, some higher-education specialists have hailed it as a game-changer that will usher more equity into the admissions process, helping to shine a light on resourceful students in rural and urban America who often fall through the cracks.
But critics argue that it fails to take in the full measure of a young person’s life and challenges, adds even more anxiety and mystery into the hypercompetitive college application process, and could be misused.
“What a great place to start. I don’t know whether it’s the place to end,” said Allison Matlack, a private admissions counselor in Needham. “It’s one more way that we get reductive. We take about 15 factors and reduce it to one number, and we say this is what the kid is up against.”
In an age when families with means can spend thousands of dollars for private counselors to walk them through the college application process and hire tutors to help their children boost their SAT test scores, the dashboard is designed to provide more balance for students with fewer resources.
The College Board has included the percentage of single parents, crime levels, college degree holders, and food stamp recipients in its neighborhood and school-level calculations. Each student application comes with an overall “disadvantage number” between 1 and 100, along with their SAT scores and data on how many students at the high school took advanced classes and tests. The higher a neighborhood and school level disadvantage score, the more difficult a student’s circumstances.
A student’s race is not among the dozens of factors used to calculate a disadvantage score.
Joy St. John, Wellesley College’s dean of admissions and financial aid, said she finds the new dashboard useful.
“This keeps us a bit more honest instead of being lazy and using SAT alone,” she said. “It’s a way to hold you accountable.”
Wellesley used the dashboard with a small group of students initially and deployed it for most of its 5,000 US applicants this past year, St. John said.
More students from the South and the West are applying to Wellesley, and they are coming from high schools that aren’t as familiar to the college’s officials, St. John said. The dashboard provides some of that contextual information in a standardized form, she said.
For example, a student with an SAT score of 1,350 out of 1,600 may be impressive, but not exceptional for Wellesley. Yet if most students in her high school receive a 1,050, she significantly outperformed her community and may be worth a deeper look, St. John said.
In well-funded high schools, the college counselor does a good job of underscoring that information, but applicants from poor and rural schools don’t always have that advantage, she said.
Several college admissions officials who have used the dashboard said it has saved them time, helped to more robustly advocate for applicants who would be passed over, and spurred greater conversations about student resourcefulness in committee meetings when applicants are reviewed.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do this,” said Matt McGann, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College, who was also a director of admissions at MIT when that school piloted the dashboard. “I see a lot of promise in this.”
The College Board said that data from its first year testing the dashboard at 15 colleges saw an overall increase of 2 to 3 percent in the number of disadvantaged students admitted. Florida State University, which was among the first to pilot the dashboard, saw the number of nonwhite freshmen grow from 37 percent to 42 percent in a state that has banned the use of race in admissions, according to published reports.
The College Board is still gathering data from its expanded 50-school pilot to determine whether the results were replicated when more schools participated.
Whether this type of index could replace race-conscious admissions is unclear.
A Boston federal district court judge is likely to rule this summer whether Harvard’s use of race in admissions harmed Asian-American applicants in a case that will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court and test support for affirmative action.
Harvard said it is evaluating its results using the College Board’s dashboard but declined to comment on whether it saw any demographic changes in its admissions pool as a result.
Still, the pushback against the College Board’s index has been fierce and come from all corners, including its competitor, the ACT. Marten Roorda, the chief executive of the ACT, questioned the lack of transparency in how the elements of disadvantage are weighed and warned that parents, teachers, and counselors could try to game the system.
Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman with the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a long-time critic of standardized admissions tests, said the dashboard confirms that these exams are unfair and should be scraped entirely.
“There is reason to be concerned that the ’score’ — based on averages in an applicant’s census block and high school — may not be sufficiently ‘granular’ to accurately capture the specific types of adversity a teenager may have faced,” Schaeffer said. “These could include family trauma such as divorce or violence, sexual abuse, homelessness or multiple moves, and the like.”
Some college counselors also raised concerns that families may consider moving or renting in a less desirable neighborhood in an effort to demonstrate that their child is more resourceful. The recent admissions scandal that exposed wealthy parents who helped their children cheat on the SATs and bribed college officials for admissions illustrates how far some are willing to go to get a spot at the top schools, they said.
College admissions officials remain skeptical that wealthy families will move to poor neighborhoods with high crime rates or remote communities and send their children to high schools with few advanced classes and overworked guidance counselors just to post a higher adversity score.
College Board officials said they are looking for data points to include in its dashboard that might root out anomalies and potential fraud, including changes in neighborhood property values.
The dashboard remains a work in progress, said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board.
The organization is considering ways to make the information more transparent, including sharing the score with students, he said.
“This is really important,” Coleman said. “Achievement without context is going to leave a lot of America behind.”