David Coleman, the President and Chief Executive of the College Board, has been under steady and rising criticism over his relatively short tenure at the head of the testing organization. After taking control, Coleman immediately moved to implement the most controversial move in the history of standardized testing: an “adversity score” that would supplement the testing scores to benefit students from impoverished areas. Critics objected that Coleman was moving beyond the core function of standardized testing and engaging in his vision of addressing social ills and inequities through testing. Some even objected that it was an effort to insert a de facto affirmative action program at the test score stage. The College Board has now announced that this expensive effort by Coleman will be scrapped. College Board however has indicated that “information” may still be given to colleges, leading some to question whether Coleman is truly yielding on his effort to augment the standardized scores of applicants.
Coleman has been pushing the so-called “adversity score” as a supplement to the SAT college admissions test. Coleman wanted colleges to use the Environmental Context Dashboard to add points for students who came from areas with less resources and more difficult learning environments.
Coleman has long been criticized by conservatives for what is viewed as a social agenda in this work. His prior efforts on the Common Core were viewed as diminishing the authority of local boards while others objected to the dropping of classic works in education in favor of non-fiction works. Once he took over the College Board, he was accused of undermining Common Core critics by incorporating much of the Common Core foundation into the SAT testing.
The adversity scoring for many seemed an effort by Coleman to defeat the primary purpose of the College Board to offer a single, standardized test that ranks students solely on their performance and knowledge. Coleman seemed to reject the value of simply supplying blind, standardized scores and explained that augmented scoring “enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked.”
Encouraging the use of an augmented score was a paradigm shift for SAT, That was a function that has been performed by colleges and has been the subject of continual litigation, particularly in the use of race as a criteria. Coleman was accused of creating a new avenue for advantaging students with lower scores, but to do so at the testing stage to better insulate the preferential ranking from review.
Coleman’s pushing of the adversity score led some to opt to take the ACT rather than the SAT, though it is unclear how much of an impact the score has had on participation. When this controversy heated up in the last year, SAT had reclaimed its position as the most used test. The controversy was undermining that effort.
For students who would not receive a bump from an adversity score, there was little reason to choose the SAT. Since those students already face the likelihood of such factors being weighed by colleges, the incorporation of the adversity score was viewed as inviting a second possible adjustment against their ranking. For white and Asian students that made the SAT less attractive. Moreover, this was a highly controversial exercise in designating whole areas as adverse or non-adverse.
There is no sign that the College Board is reconsidering the leadership of Coleman despite almost two years of controversy and distraction over this failed effort. Coleman now admits that “the idea of a single score was wrong. It was confusing and created the misperception that the indicators are specific to an individual student.”
Critics however are not convinced that Coleman is truly giving up on the idea of creating a new basis for augmenting scores or applications.
In my view, SAT should return to its core function of supplying blind, standardized scores. Students work hard to get their grades and scores as high as possible for college. SAT and ACT are supposed to offer them reliable and neutral testing options. Colleges and universities will likely continue to litigate their own admission standards, particularly in considering race and other immutable characteristics. However, Coleman’s effort to weigh in on college selection was unnecessary, unwise, and ultimately harmful to the College Board.