The SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard System

Ellie McFarland | @El_FarAwayLand

College application season has long passed, as has the time to receive college acceptance letters for most of the country. However, the season that does not stop is SAT and ACT testing. The College Board recently announced that they would be implementing a new “Environmental Context Dashboard” system. This would impact the SAT score by accounting for the crime rate of the student’s residency. It will also factor the socioeconomic status of that geographic area. All sides of the political aisle have either given praise or criticism to this decision. However, this is the sort of decision that one can’t brush off as either solely “good” or “bad”.

A Replacement for Affirmative Action

Most view Affirmative Action in college and the workplace as ridiculous. This is because race has little to do with the difficulty involved in achieving academic, career, or financial success. However, what is a factor, at least on a general level, is geography. The neighborhood a person lives in is an accurate indicator of their economic and educational background. At the very least, more so than simply race or sex.

The Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) system takes these factors into account. It hopes to erase the “this is the poor neighborhood I grew up in, look how comparatively impressive my scores are” song and dance. What it will be replaced with, ideally, is a proportional score system.

The Inaccuracies of Environmental Context Dashboard

1100 out of downtown Baltimore is significantly more impressive than 1100 out of a suburb in upstate New York. This is because of the implicit economic and environmental assumptions that these locations carry. Living in an impoverished family can make certain things very difficult. Certainly more difficult than it is for wealthier families. This is just a fact of circumstance. The Environmental Context Dashboard will not account race, which is the very nature of most affirmative action policies we see today.

As a system that attempts to adjust scores for economic misfortune, on the surface it seems it would work well. However, it has the potential to award points where there doesn’t deserve to be any. It is far more difficult to live in a wealthy neighborhood as with limited funds than it is to live in a poor neighborhood with excess funds. A person whose budget for a home is 100,000 dollars could never buy a house in the Hamptons, but a person who’s budget for a home is virtually unlimited could buy a house in Harlem if they really wanted to.

Difference of Opportunity Goes Both Ways

As it turns out, people with plenty of money and plenty of education frequently do buy houses in low-income neighborhoods. This may be out of personal frugality or out of hopes that the neighborhood will improve soon. Nonetheless, a child out of this situation could go to the same school as a child whose parents make next to nothing. Statistics show the child from the wealthier family would fare far better on average. Geography as a mechanism for measuring ease of academic achievement has the same pitfalls as race– albeit to a much lesser extent. This is also the same with factors going as close as the specific school a child attends. The only real indicator that would be useful in the context of the SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard system would be household income. But this, obviously, raises some ethical concerns.

Truthfully, the economic situation is not a perfect system either. Nothing really is. Everyone experiences their life’s fair share of problems. Certainly on average, those who are wealthy don’t have as many on the surface. But suppose now we consider someone who is disabled? Suppose this well off person with average SAT scores suffered a profoundly traumatic experience that creeps into every aspect of their life? A person like that in any of those scenarios would have a much harder time achieving academically than a person who grew up poor in a bad neighborhood and in a bad school, but who also had tremendous drive.

Ineffective Measures

Simply, adjusting College Board test scores through the Environmental Context Dashboard is not a very effective measure of the work one puts into a standardized test score. The adjustment will not and cannot account for everything that a college admissions board may be interested in hearing. This is the reason that most colleges are shifting focus from standardized tests to essay and GPA. This is good, but it certainly isn’t enough.

In reality, we need an entire restriction of the college admissions system. Objectively speaking, the score of a test taken for one day is not as indicative of intellect or of a good work ethic as grades are. Even GPA is subject to the same economic and geographic pitfalls as the ACT and SAT scores are, but that is where the importance of the essay comes into play. If students are to expect their college admissions boards to take into account circumstance in any way, it has to be done in a way that’s helpful, productive, and accurate. Frankly, a test score with any metric is not the way to achieve this.


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