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The SAT will now share students' 'adversity score' with colleges in an attempt to make admissions more fair

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A new admissions tool could change the way colleges assess applicants' standardized test scores.

Over the past three years, the College Board, the non-profit organization that administers SAT and AP testing, has been experimenting with an Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) that would give colleges greater insight into the social and economic background of applicants.

After piloting the system at around 50 colleges and universities, the College Board will be expanding the dashboard to 150 colleges later this year and to all colleges by 2020, after finding that schools participating in the pilot program were more likely to accept applicants from higher levels of disadvantage when using the program.

According to The Wall Street Journal, one of the variables included on this dashboard is an "adversity score," which uses a scale of one through 100 and considers 15 factors about student's neighborhood (such as crime rates, poverty rates and housing values), family environment (such as family income, education level and single parent status), and high school environments (such as AP opportunity and what percentage of students qualify for free lunch).

This measurement is being referred to by college admissions officers as an "adversity score," according to the Journal. The College Board does not use this language, and instead says that the score captures a student's "disadvantage level."

When students submit their SAT or AP scores to colleges, the College Board will also provide information about how that student's economic and social background compares to their peers. The ECD does not include information about race.

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"The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less," says David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, in a statement shared with CNBC Make It. "It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked."

An example of the Environment Context Dashboard provided by The College Board.

An example of the Environment Context Dashboard provided by The College Board

The decision to expand the program comes amidst increasing criticism about the role of wealth in higher education.

According to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, fewer than one in five Americans believe the college admissions process is "generally fair" and about 67 percent of respondents said that the current college application and admissions process "favors the rich and powerful."

Wealthy students are more likely to attend high schools with a significant number of AP classes, more likely to have access to tutors, more likely to have taken standardized test preparation classes and more likely to have taken standardized tests like the SAT more than once — all things that are known to increase SAT scores.

"There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more," Coleman tells The Wall Street Journal. "We can't sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT."

Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown University in 2008.
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But responses to the College Board's announcement have been mixed.

"We have so much personal data on all of our applicants that we don't feel the need for a tool like this," Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admission at Georgetown University tells The Washington Post. "In this era of 'data analytics' I guess this is one that could be helpful, but to be honest I still see college admissions as 'an art, not a science' so I'm prone to resist quantifying things too much."

Other schools say they've found the ECD useful.

"This new environmental context dashboard offers objective, independent evidence to weigh alongside test scores, grades, co-curricular activities, their essay [and] letters of recommendation," Eric Maloof, vice president for Enrollment Management at Trinity University in San Antonio, tells the Trinitonian.

"It is a great tool that I think helped us identify kids who have overcome significant contextual adversity in a very race-neutral way and a very data-driven way," Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale tells the Yale Daily News. "It really helped drive home more of the contextual background on some students."

Adam Sapp, director of admissions at Pomona College tells The Washington Post the pilot program worked well and believes it will get better over time. "I look forward to the improvements that I know will be made over the next few years," he says. "It's really important that we get this right."

Correction: An earlier version improperly rendered the name of Trinity University.

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