A few thoughts about the College Board ECD


If you read this blog or have seen my presentations, you know I’m no fan of the College Board. There are lots of reasons, and I won’t rehash them here.

So I was intrigued last week when the framework for the Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) was released. I’m not a fan of the passive voice, usually, but in this case I have to be; the story first got national attention when it broke in the Wall Street Journal, and I can’t tell whether The College Board pushed it out, or whether the WSJ did some digging and discovered that some colleges had been using it for a while and the pilot was expanding. I was away at my daughter’s college graduation, and didn’t pay much attention to the details.

Let me first say that I like the idea of the Environmental Context Dashboard very much. I believe admissions officers should use a student’s background and context when trying to evaluate his or her academic achievement. In fact, good admissions officers already do.

Consider the comments of Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, in a discussion with the student newspaper there in response to a question about going test-optional (he’s not in favor): “But I don’t see why you don’t look at people’s test scores as long as you evaluate those test scores based on the opportunity of that person to get high test scores. There are certain schools — if you can somehow get a 1200, that’s the highest anybody in your school’s gotten in a decade — and there are certain schools — if you get a 1450, you say what happened? Everybody’s getting 1500. You have to put it in perspective.” Of course, Akil Bello, in his keynote at Illinois ACAC this year, pointed out one little flaw in that argument, after looking at the Northwestern Common Data Set.

Oops. But never mind that. Considering context is important if you want to do admissions with any semblance of fairness. And at my institution, we’ve had an index for internal use for almost 20 years. It helps us put applications in context when–and this is important–we don’t have better information to go on. (It was developed with the assistance of an outside company, and it’s proprietary, and no I won’t share it.) It’s not a crutch to be used by lazy admissions officers who don’t want to read a profile that provides much of this information already.

I also like the fact that these data are race neutral, which is likely to be important in the future as challenges to using ethnicity as one component of a holistic admissions process are likely to continue, if not escalate. So it’s a smart move on the part of College Board. (I have a feeling that that last sentence will be taken out of context and put on a bulletin board in The Board’s corporate offices. Oh well. Like I’ll ever know.)

So, now that I’ve broken my fast and paid College Board a compliment for doing something that can be a genuine help to colleges, and–we hope–to students, let’s look at where this roll out falls short, and the problems it will undoubtedly create. Check that: The problems it has already created.

First, of course, is the satisfaction of The College Board admitting that its tests don’t work real well for large numbers of students–the students, in fact, we all think should be going to college in larger numbers. This is a pretty dramatic shift, and it comes on the heels of a strong PR campaign to dismiss the test optional movement, which, of course, is really about giving good students a chance in spite of a biased test that stands in their way. Sound familiar? It also flies in the face of the “feel good” vibe the Board likes to push out about the test locating “diamonds in the rough.” Yes, that narrative is real: There are diamonds in the rough, and the SAT does help find them. But on balance, that doesn’t make up for the large numbers of students the test disadvantages in a tacit or accidental attempt to maintain higher education’s status quo.

The tragedy, however, is the irony of standardized score to try to explain the limitations of a standardized score developed by the same company.

The second concern, I think, is the news that every student will have an Adversity Score, from 1-100, but The College Board initially refusing to release either the factors in the formula, or the formula itself, coupled with the fact that the students won’t know their score. With regard to the first part, I recall a line by Richard Atkinson, former president of the UC System, in the movie The Test and the Art of Thinking. I’m paraphrasing, but he ridiculed the concept that you needed a 1,600- (actually 1,200-, or actually 120-) point scale to measure human potential and aptitude. Similarly, does the 100-point scale imply some precision that isn’t there? I think so, and I worry about how some young admissions officers (we know many of them, even at Harvard, based on testimony in the recent lawsuit suggesting they draw pretty hard lines between and among scores that aren’t that different) don’t know about Standard Error of Measure (SEM), and I would bet you a dollar right now that there will be decisions that come down to a one- or two-point difference in “Adversity Index.” I hope the training for users for the data will be taught about the appropriate use–and especially the misuse–of it. And I fear that it will be used in reverse: A high adversity score could be used to discount good grades, which–as even The College Board admits–is the best indicator of success in college. If the ECD only serves to explain a low SAT score, it’s already a failure.

Third is the failure of The College Board to manage even the nomenclature on this. Within a day, David Coleman was on CBS disputing the concept of the “Adversity Index,” and pledging to release the recipe behind it by noon that day (it was not released by noon that day.) In fact (having seen the dashboard) there is an adversity index variable. In fact, there are two; one is normed to the state, which seems like a pretty dull knife with which to cut. But control of the narrative has already been ceded to the pundits, many of whom don’t know the first damn thing about admissions. This job is tough enough without some people on Vesey Street screwing it up.

There is already extreme paranoia among high school counselors, independent educational consultants, and wealthy parents, many of whom believe that this is going to hurt their children’s chances of gaining admission to selective institutions because the Adversity Index (the inverse of which is apparently the Privilege Index) will be held against their students or children. This is not the fault of the College Board. It’s what people with wealth and power and privilege do. They worry that their ample piece of the pie will be reduced by someone less “deserving.” In a Facebook group for admissions professionals I monitor, there are already concerns about the poor student who attends a prestigious New England prep school on scholarship, and who will be penalized for it, as the Adversity Index uses no personal data, but rather school data.

No, that won’t happen. For one thing, you can tell the child of a single mother who works as a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn is not paying $60,000 a year for school; for another, those kids will get a lot of love in the counselor and teacher letters. And finally, the Index won’t carry as much weight as the many, many, other things in the admissions file. Or at least it shouldn’t, and you can take solace in the fact that–with admissions decisions at super-selectives being unpredictable–you won’t know anyway.

Here’s what else won’t happen: People will not move down to poorer, less-resourced school districts to get their kids a higher adversity score to gain advantage. If you think that’s going to happen, you either a) don’t live in America, or b) you haven’t been paying attention all these <insert your age here> years.

So, the ECD is, in theory a good idea, and I’m glad admissions officers will have another tool to use. As glad as I am, I am fearful it will be used inappropriately, much like the SAT is, and USNWR will start asking for average adversity scores (sorry if I just gave Bob Morse an idea, but I’d rather be right than late.)

Finally, as is so often the case, I see the College Board as the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight. This news burst on the scene with (apparently) no communications plan, nothing sent to the membership, no FAQ’s and–unbelievably– no awareness or self-awareness of how those factors will lead to the shitstorm we now find ourselves in. Guys, call me next time.

This company, that can’t roll out a new and genuinely interesting offering without screwing it up as badly as possible, that can’t seem to address test security or test-development or AP registration or send a simple email about a school shooting without messing something up, has a huge say in who goes to college in America, and who goes to what college. You didn’t elect them, and no one you elected appointed them. Their position is tenuous at best, and should be based on them doing complex things well.

They don’t do even the simple things well.

How does that make you feel?

3 thoughts on “A few thoughts about the College Board ECD

  1. I will choose to ignore the not so subtle efforts to get high schools to push College Board products on their students in a probably false hope that no one at CB thought of that as they built the ECD, but I can’t ignore the fact that any attempt to classify a student’s personal experience based on generalizations will fall short. And yes, the way this was rolled out … who is responsible for communications at CB?

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  2. Excellent think piece. I do take issue with your statement, “People will not move down to poorer, less-resourced school districts to get their kids a higher adversity score to gain advantage.” Unfortunately, that already happens in San Francisco–not (yet) for the adversity index, but for parents seeking to put their middle of the road student in a low API, poorly resourced school so that they will come out with a 4.0 UWGPA, instead of being a B student at the highly resourced, high API high school. The whole city of SF is treated as one school district, so residents can choose to attend any high school they qualify for. Not all choose to attend the best school they can, public or private. It’s a small step from attending a crap school to maximize one’s GPA to attending a crap school to maximize one’s adversity index. I’m pretty sure it will happen. It’s also no crazier than faking a learning disability to get extra time on the SAT or ACT, or having Rick Singer Photoshop your head onto a picture of a water polo player to get recruited in a sport you never played. I may have a more cynical view of high school parents than you do, Jon.

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