"Adversity Scores": The College Board's Environmental Context Dashboard

There has been a LOT of buzz over the past week about the College Board’s new “Adversity Score” / Environmental Context Dashboard, which C.E.O. David Coleman discussed publicly last Thursday.

I think that most people reading this blog post probably have a general understanding of what this is by now, so I am not going to summarize it. You can read more here and here if you are interested in a general overview. Instead, I’d like to share a few reasons why I think this is a bad idea.

Discussing the ECD on CNN last Friday

Discussing the ECD on CNN last Friday


Almost exactly twenty years ago, there was a similar initiative that was met with similar outcry. I don’t think most people realize this. Why is College Board repeating a failed project? Yes, the other one factored race into the calculations, but the reasons for the backlash are more or less the same.


College Board is going to assign scores to students without sharing those scores? Seriously? I get it - they’re trying to cut down on potential challenges - but what if there are mistakes? Students’ counselors can’t even see the scores. To make it even crazier, they won’t release the methodology. Why are they making this so difficult? What’s the problem with just being up front? I know this is a wild thought, but what if there’s an error?This happens! It’s a little disconcerting that they won’t even provide school counselors with the ability to glance over scores for a few seconds to consider whether things look more-or-less correct. Although, the more I think about it, I suppose they’d have to release more information about the methodology for counselors to be able to hazard a guess. Either way, this is a real problem.


As I mentioned, we don’t know the methodology in terms of the calculations and weighting. We do, however, know the list of factors that will be considered (although we don’t know how they will measure the factors). Let’s take one of them that hits close to home for me: the score related to single-parent households. When this story first broke, I thought about how I would have been considered a student living in a single-parent household at the time I graduated from high school, but my younger brother would not have. Our father died of cancer when I was 11 and he was 7, but our mother remarried during his senior year in high school. We both certainly faced a lot of adversity, but one could make the (very accurate, in my opinion) argument that I had four more years of a two-parent household than he did and was therefore better off - even though I was the one in a single-parent household at the time I graduated.

Taking this even further, what about kids with divorced parents? I have plenty of clients that are divorced, but both parents are very actively engaged in their kids’ lives. Are those students living in single-parent households? If the very-engaged dad lives in a condo in Tysons and the student lives with mom in McLean, is that student really worse off than the student in Vienna whose parents are married, but dad has been deployed for the last year? I honestly don’t see how you can consider all of these various scenarios without context.


Despite everything I wrote above about the difficulty of calculating some of these factors on a per-student basis, the College Board is making it even worse by calculating them on a neighborhood and high school-basis. So instead of faulty-but-at-least-individualized assessments, they are simply combining general averages to calculate the individual student scores. So maybe the student with the high single-parent score grew up in a clear-cut single-parent situation that no one could argue about, but he doesn’t even get credit for it because his neighbors are primarily living in two-parent households. You can’t quantify individualized information with general data!


Look - I’m not happy with the current system. I think it’s unfair on many levels. There are SO many things I don’t like about it. But at least we all know there’s a problem and we can try to work on it. I would much rather deal with a broken system that leads to constituents seeking a well thought-out solution than a quick fix that doesn’t make sense. At least in the first scenario, there’s hope for change on the horizon.