What the SAT Adversity Score Means for Your Test Prep Business

If you deliver a high-quality, personalized test prep experience, the news about the “secret” SAT Adversity Index should be a win for your business.

College Board - the parent company of the SAT and AP suites of tests - is attaching information to the SAT score reports it sends to colleges that provides context for students’ educational and socioeconomic environment. Not only that, they have been providing this data for years in some cases as a part of several pilot programs.

Coming on the heels of the recent college admissions scandals, this latest revelation has stirred up yet another hornet’s nest of media coverage debating notions of privilege and fairness in college admissions. It can be easy to get swept up in the slew of hot takes and talking heads, but wait a minute - what is CollegeBoard actually doing?

Upon closer examination, not as much as it might seem. What’s more, your test prep business should be able to leverage this news as a net positive.

The SAT Adversity Index Explained

Let’s start by looking at what the College Board is not doing. Student’s actual test scores are not being curved, adjusted, boosted, or in any way changed based upon the so-called “adversity index” metrics.

Instead, colleges are being provided with an Environmental Context Dashboard that contains information about a student’s learning environment and local community to help provide additional context.

This collection of data provides colleges with three additional pieces of information along with a student’s score:

  • A comparison of the student’s score to fellow SAT-takers from his or her high school

  • Data about the student’s high school including its locale, senior class size, percentage of students that qualify for free/reduced lunch, average SAT score for first-year students at colleges attended by SAT-taking graduates, AP course offerings, and some basic AP test data

  • Information about the student’s local community including college attendance, family stability, median family income, housing stability, educational level, and crime

All of this information is depicted along with a student’s score data in a handy chart.

Source: CollegeBoard

Source: CollegeBoard

Of note (and the source of much of the media outrage) is the “Overall Disadvantage Level” metric. This is a cumulative score, created and calculated by CollegeBoard, of all the aforementioned factors. A score of 50 represents an average level of disadvantage (whatever that means). Higher scores indicate more significant adversity than lower scores.

It is left to colleges to decide what they choose to do with this information about a student’s environment. Again, no actual test scores are changed.

The Losers of the SAT Adversity Index Revelation


Deserved or not, the College Board is once again facing controversy. While much ink has been spilled on the topics of “fairness” and the problematic implications of rating each student’s upbringing, the bigger issue is that CollegeBoard is (and has been) providing this information to colleges and not to the actual test-takers.

Given the SAT’s negative press of late, College Board is playing into an unflattering preexisting narrative by creating the perception that students and their families will be left in the dark about important factors in the college admissions process. What algorithm is generating these numbers? What is my Disadvantage Level score?

While CollegeBoard CEO David Coleman has made the rounds trying to justify the Environmental Context Dashboard, there are still some big issues that haven’t been addressed - chief among them: there is no indication from the CollegeBoard that this information will be made available to individual students. That may prove to be an issue for CollegeBoard in the current climate where peddling outrage is an industry. Scores of click-bait columns and listicles will attract millions of clicks from people who are eager for their outrage fix. Unfortunately, this may shape a false narrative going forward, which brings us to…

The Misinformed

Parents, even more than students, are willing to do just about anything to secure advantages on the SAT. While this is true for most aspects of the college admissions process (see: Google “College Admissions” and make note of the suggested searches: scandal, indictment, bribery), there will be plenty of people who pay just enough attention to the “Adversity Index” news to consider making bad decisions.

In the days since the news broke of SAT’s Environmental Context information, there are already news outlets and social-media pundits misrepresenting it. Some are falsely casting the data as a curve – students with high levels of “disadvantage” will get fewer questions right than their more affluent peers but the same overall score. As mentioned, this is not the case.

Others are sounding the alarm over the scourge of “reverse discrimination.” They argue that tests should be strictly merit-based. They claim that acknowledging the role of socioeconomic conditions in perpetuating unequal opportunity will foster resentment against wealthier, whiter students, and cost higher-scoring, affluent applicants the enrollment opportunities they — and to a degree, their parents — earned.

The reality is that schools are free to admit students as they see fit, within some very broad parameters. Since there is little that a student can do to affect his or her Environmental Context Data, it is a fool’s errand to load up on outrage. It’s probably even more foolish to look for an angle to manipulate it. There is substantially more to be gained by focusing on test prep than buying a second home in a lower socioeconomic area with the intention of gaming the college admissions system.

Furthermore, virtually all of the information that SAT is reporting was already available to colleges. Now, CollegeBoard is just making it easier to find (in their own way).

At the end of the day, colleges are receiving information to help contextualize students’ performances by surfacing metrics that may shine a light on applicants who would otherwise have been overlooked.

The reality is, testing is inevitably biased. For example, according to the CollegeBoard’s own data, there are notable differences in the distribution of SAT scores depending upon the race of the test-taker.


Despite continual revisions and adjustments to the test over the years, discrepancies like this remain. Adding contextual data can help add meaning to a particular score. A seemingly average score within a pool of all applicants may actually be a much stronger (or weaker) score in the full context of local and school environments. Likewise, a strong performance on the SAT may be even more significant when considered alongside test-takers who had faced similarly adverse (or even non-adverse) lives.

The important thing to remember when you hear people hyperventilating over this news story is that colleges will do with this information what they choose to do. They still want the strongest student body with the highest chances for success (read: future brand ambassadors and donors). Alarmist hot-takes about reverse-discrimination fundamentally misunderstand what the Environmental Context Dashboard is and rely on false assumptions that it will be used nefariously.

One-Size-Fits-All Tutors

In the test-prep business there’s two ways you can go: one-size-fits all, or personalized and data-driven. It’s easy to grab a bunch of off-the-shelf materials and call yourself a tutor. You don’t even have to hang a shingle. You can just open shop or post an advertisement on Craigslist or Facebook. You can run every student through the same course in the same order, focusing on whichever topics your gut tells you they would benefit from reviewing. It’s simple. And it’s very very ineffective.

This approach to selling test prep may not be snake-oil, but it’s not far from it. You’ll probably make a few sales, but discerning parents and highly motivated students won’t take a second look at your “system.” These are parents who were already highly engaged in the college admissions process for their kids. Now, following the announcement of the adversity score, these parents are even more motivated to select the most effective test prep service available. As a result, these parents will seek a test prep experience that focuses directly on the needs of their individual student. Their fear is that their child’s potential won’t be as visible in the era of greater competition from students who benefit from the “Adversity Score.”

Consequently, this new anxiety on the part of parents and students represents an opportunity for you to provide reassurance in the form of an exceptional test prep experience. Looking to supercharge your test prep offerings to provide your students a dynamic and tailor made test prep experience?

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The Winners of the SAT Adversity Index Revelation

High-Quality Test Prep Tutors (like you!)

The disinformation and social media hubbub actually works in your favor on this one. Many families that find themselves on the lower end of the disadvantage level scale (lower scores indicate a student has theoretically faced less adversity), believe that their children are being unfairly penalized. On the other hand, students on the higher end of the adversity metrics can interpret the news as a sign of hope.

While these perceptions may or may not be wholly based on the reality of what the Environmental Context Dashboard data actually is (or how schools are actually using it), the end result is that there is likely to be an increase in prospective students now interested in top-shelf test prep:

  • Those on the higher end of the socioeconomic scale looking to boost scores so as not to be outpaced by students with lower scores but a higher “Disadvantage Level” ratings will want elite-level test prep that is more than dime-a-dozen options used by their peers.

  • Those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who may never have considered test prep will see the new context data as a potential way to make their scores stand out – even if they may otherwise have been seen as mediocre.

As long as you are offering the best possible test prep programming and your pitch game is on point, you should be able to leverage this latest news in your favor.

College Admissions Staff

Creating a freshman class can’t be easy. As with any decision-making process, the more relevant information that’s available, the more informed the decision can be.

That seems to be the case here. The early reviews from schools piloting the SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard have been largely positive.

Like it or not, schools have been using test scores and demographic data in their admissions decisions for decades. This new information from the CollegeBoard simply helps schools see both a test score and a candidate in different ways.


Once the confusion and anger about the SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard began to gather momentum, ACT quickly chimed in with an interesting take.

In a May 17 press release, ACT CEO Marten Roorda outlined his concerns that the adversity score is inherently unfair and ripe for manipulation:

[T]he test is not biased in itself, and the score is what it is, even though it is sometimes a messenger of what’s unequal in society, not in the student. The test should be the equalizer, but by providing an adversity score you invite its users to adjust scores with it, starting an equating practice that undermines the equalizing effect of the score scale and invites bad behavior.

If parents, teachers, and counselors know test scores will be re-equated for adversity, some will attempt to manipulate and game the system. That is easy: You can use an address of someone you know who is living in a poor neighborhood or report lower family income.

Citing the potential for future abuse may seem like kicking the SAT while it’s down, but the notion will resonate with many who have been following the CollegeBoard’s string of bad press.

He goes on to state that tests should not be the ones to judge student struggle and passes the burden on to college admissions:

I acknowledge that underserved students face barriers that their more fortunate peers don’t, requiring them to work harder and show greater resilience to reach their goals. But I think admissions officers are already very capable of assessing students’ hurdles without an adversity score, and that assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit is a much better measure than neighborhood adversity.

No matter which testing company’s CEO you agree with (if any), the reality is that the substance of Roorda’s message will be similar to the outlooks of some of your potential clients, particularly those with low Disadvantage Level scores.

If you do not currently offer ACT test prep to your clients, now might be a good time to add it to your repertoire. There will likely be plenty of students who will view the SAT’s recent issues as reasons to avoid it.

Hard-Working Students

In the end, the biggest winners of this whole ordeal are students who put in the time, effort, and energy to succeed. All students deserve to have their college application evaluated fairly and holistically. There is an entire internet full of perspectives and arguments as to how we help students to put their best foot forward in the college application process, but chief among them is to empower them with quality educational experiences.

Test prep tutors are charged with providing students with the support to achieve their highest possible scores and, in turn, open up as many potential doors for students’ futures. This means using the best possible tools and providing the highest level of support to give every student a reasonable chance at success.

What a school chooses to do with this new information from the CollegeBoard is beyond the control of both tutors and our clients. All we can do is be sure that every student has a chance to reach their truest potential.

Want to know how you can step up your test prep game to meet these lofty demands? Clear Choice Prep can help.

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Matt McCorkle