What's the SAT Adversity Score?

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Last month, the College Board—the company that owns and operates the SAT, SAT II Subject Tests, and AP exams—announced that going forward, it would present colleges with not only the students’ scores on the SAT...but also an additional score to help “contextualize” it: the new “Adversity Score.”

So there are some questions you’re probably asking—and I bet they’re pretty similar to the questions that I’m being asked by clients who follow college prep news closely (some do, even though all of the families I work with can clock out about that when I’m on the job keeping you informed about the latest news, including the things that other tutors, admissions consultants, and test prep experts might not have mentioned).

What IS the SAT Adversity Score?

This Adversity Score—part of a larger rating system called the Environmental Context Dashboard—is a measure of what the College Board calls the “Overall Disadvantage Level” of the student’s neighborhood. That number will rate the challenges the student has had to overcome in order to earn his or her score, and will be based on fifteen different factors, like the quality of the student’s high school and the poverty level and crime rate of the student’s neighborhood. In short, a higher Overall Disadvantage Level assumes that the student has had to overcome more adverse circumstances, contextual challenges, and hurdles in order to earn the score that they did.

How does the SAT Adversity Score work?

The Adversity Score will be a number from 1 to 100, with 50 representing the national average, above 50 indicating a context of more hardship, and under 50 pointing towards fewer environmental challenges the student has had to overcome.

What’s MY SAT Adversity Score?

That’s one of the big things about the Adversity Score: you won’t know what yours is.

The college sees the full Environmental Context Dashboard, not you. The student and family of the student would not know their score—it would be in The College Board’s direct communication with the colleges. It’s a score tied to your zip code, not your individual life—it’s based on data from the Census Bureau, crime data from the FBI, and other sources. (Critics have pointed out this means it can be wrong about what a particular individual has experienced.)

What Colleges Use the SAT Adversity Score?

The College Board has already rolled out a trial version of the Adversity Score to 50 colleges, with Yale already using it to help create a diverse campus—and find rising stars who’ve displayed their talent by achieving noteworthy scores despite truly difficult life circumstances—for two years now. The plan is to officially roll it out to 150 schools in 2019, and even more widely in 2020.

Those are the hard facts about the SAT Adversity Score.


So now the Great Adversity Score Debate begins!

Online, college counselors, tutoring companies, high schools and other groups are up in arms, espousing all the different ways the Adversity Score is faulty and won’t work. Meanwhile, other tutoring companies and college admissions counselors have said absolutely NOTHING,in hopes that what a privileged parent doesn’t know won’t hurt him (and won’t eat up the tutor’s/college advisor’s time).

In pure Ivy Lounge Test Prep fashion, I can see both the good and bad in the situation. But more importantly, I see how to plan and proceed based on the facts! After all, does complaining about something change it? Does acknowledging all the ways someone might get a lower “Adversity Score” than their true emotional, socioeconomic, mental and psychological hardships should warrant...change that it’s happening? Nope. We have to move onward and upward, using this as just another deciding factor in our testing decisions and our Test Prep Timeline

The main way I see this playing out is that families in privileged zip codes may start converting to the ACT over the SAT in droves, since the ACT has never mentioned adding an Adversity Score to its reporting, and those of means don’t want a low Adversity score “voiding out” a high SAT score.

While that knee-jerk reaction may seem correct, let’s be rational, shall we?


Here’s what the SAT Adversity Score will mean for you:

  1. If you’re choosing between the SAT and the ACT, and your diagnostic tests are basically equivalent, you might consider opting for the ACT if your neighborhood and school are considered “advantaged.”

  2. If you’re choosing between the SAT and the ACT, and your diagnostic tests are basically equivalent, and you live in a generally “disadvantaged” neighborhood and/or attend a school with fewer privileges/means, you might opt for the SAT so that colleges understand the environmental factors you’ve had to overcome to perform as well as you did!

  3. If you legitimately perform better on the SAT than the ACT, you should take the SAT—after all, a higher score is a higher score, and THAT matters much more than the context (or lack of context) of that score!

  4. That said, if you will likely be grouped into the “haves” as opposed to the “have nots,” and you’re taking the SAT, it might be a good idea to raise your target score by 20-30 points higher than you originally planned. Like, if your colleges have middle 50th percentile scores of 1350-1430, so you were originally aiming for a 1390+, you might want to make that 1410 or 1420+ now. 

  5. If you legitimately perform better on the ACT than the SAT, you should still take the ACT—even if you would likely be considered “disadvantaged.” After all, you want the highest SCORE possible, not highest “Adversity” score possible!

I know this may have seemed a bit jarring to find out, but it’s better to find out and know how to plan than to be broadsided. Specifically, expert help will be a big leg up in deciding which test is right for the student in your life (especially now that you’re taking into account which best suits both your strengths and your situation). And if it turns out that the SAT makes the most sense for you and that you do anticipate a low Adversity Score, then expert help can make the difference between the score you thought you needed and the score you really need to show colleges that you’re a powerhouse applicant, not just a reflection of a good school system.

I’m here for you if you need help deciding between the two tests for your situation—and especially if you now realize you need to raise your SAT score further than you thought you needed to! I specialize in helping my students achieve scores beyond the ones of which they thought they were capable.