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City Heights Students Are Mixed On New SAT ‘Adversity Scores’

Brittany Hernandez and Dagmawit Assaye won scholarships to study in Hawaii be...

Photo by Priya Sridhar

Above: Brittany Hernandez and Dagmawit Assaye won scholarships to study in Hawaii because they earned the top two highest GPAs in the Reality Changers program. City Heights, May 21, 2019.

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Many colleges and universities will get more than just your typical SAT score to determine next year's incoming freshman class. A new score is supposed to give schools more context about a student's background.

Aired: May 23, 2019 | Transcript

The new "adversity score" that will go out to 150 colleges and universities in addition to an applicant's SAT score has been met with mixed reviews from students and educators who work in low-income communities, including in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood.

This fall, the College Board is launching an Environmental Context Dashboard, or an "adversity score," a 0 to 100 score based on data from a student's school and neighborhood, including median family income, crime levels and percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches. Scores closer to 100 indicate a student may have faced more hardship because of their environment.

At Reality Changers, a nonprofit based in City Heights, low-income students work to become the first in their families to attend college. Once a week, 175 eighth to 11th graders meet to get standardized test preparation, tutoring and classes that help them with admissions essays and financial aid applications.

Jordan Harrison is the senior director of programs at Reality Changers and says the Environmental Context Dashboard is a step in the right direction, but he also has concerns.

Video by Priya Sridhar

"I think I'm also wary and don't want this to turn into the oppression Olympics," he said. He worries the score could make students think, "How do I get my house into another area code? Or how do I talk about how much my family makes?".

Critics of the SAT have said that standardized tests favor students from wealthy backgrounds. Many colleges and universities have stopped requiring applicants to submit standardized test scores.

Dagmawit Assaye, a Reality Changers participant, grew up in City Heights, but now attends La Jolla High School through the school choice program. She thinks it's a good idea for schools to consider where she came from.

"Me being here and living in City Heights and the expectations of people in La Jolla are totally different. When you go to La Jolla High School everybody has very high SAT and ACT scores because...they have the money in order for them to have SAT prep that's hardcore," she said. "They pay for tutors."

Angel Rios, a junior at Lincoln High School, said that he would not have access to standardized test preparation if it wasn't for Reality Changers.

"I honestly didn't even know how to sign up," he said. "I didn't know what the test was, but they helped me gain the information, the knowledge that I needed."

Photo credit: The College Board

An example of what an Environmental Context Dashboard looks like.

Reality Changers uses curriculum from Winward Academy, an organization that offers standardized test preparation courses in low-income communities around the country. In the past four years, low-income students who have gone through their coursework have seen average growth on the SAT of 200 points and on the ACT of five points.

"Those are the same growth numbers that we're able to see when we're working with students who are coming in from more privileged backgrounds," said Jennifer Winward, founder of the Winward Academy. While she believes the Environmental Context Dashboard will help give colleges and universities a broader picture of a student's background, she thinks the bigger issue is getting students from all socio-economic backgrounds to have access to the same resources that will allow them to perform well academically.

"How do we address that all students need access to resources to help them achieve and grow and learn and do well on those tests and to really earn that process where they really feel a sense of ownership over the process and their future and college applications," she said.

Many of the Reality Changers students said they worried that an Environment Context Dashboard score could lead to an acceptance at a school where they might not be fully prepared.

Studies show that college students whose parents are also college-educated have a higher chance of finishing their degrees.

"Even now I go to Hoover High School and everybody says, 'oh they have easy classes, you have to pass Hoover or you're kind of like dumb' and I'm scared that if I had gone to Patrick Henry or La Jolla I wouldn't perform as well," said Brittany Hernandez, a junior at Hoover High School.

The new score "shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less," said College Board CEO David Coleman in a statement to KPBS. "It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked."

The College Board uses information from the National Center For Education Statistics and the U.S. Census to determine the score, but won't reveal exactly how the score is calculated.

Sandra Temores-Valdez, the senior director of enrollment services at San Diego State University, said that she likes to have as much information as she can get on applicants.

"I think as we know there's disparities when it comes to performance of the test scores and so this allows us to look at other factors that we consider in the admission process versus just that one SAT score," she said.

By Reporter Priya Sridhar

Many colleges and universities will get more than just your typical SAT score to determine next year's incoming freshman class. A new score is supposed to give schools more context about a student's background.

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