Why the SAT needs a character check

A new scoring metric by the College Board will help the admission of more disadvantaged applicants by highlighting those who defy their social or economic hardships.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Prospective students and parents take a tour of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

To help more disadvantaged students get into higher education, the College Board has come up with a scoring metric beyond its own SAT test, which measures only verbal and math skills. The new tool is designed to help admissions officers detect if applicants have risen above limitations in their social or economic circumstances by expressing a particular character trait: resourcefulness. 

The new metric, called the Environmental Context Dashboard, has been tried by 50 colleges over the past year and will be rolled out to 150 institutions this fall. Relying on public data, it looks at 15 factors in neighborhoods and schools that might negatively influence a candidate’s college readiness.

These contextual statistics include crime rates, education levels, joblessness, and the number of households that receive food stamps. If applicants come from a highly adverse background yet have decent but perhaps not stellar SAT scores, a college might then admit them. Such students have shown a conscientiousness that defies the notion that demographics is destiny. They have discovered they do not have to be victims of vicissitude.

This predictor of resourcefulness highlights more than tenacity or resilience. Resourcefulness shows an ability to seek support outside one’s self. It requires an inherent purpose in learning. The new tool “shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” says David Coleman, the College Board’s chief executive.

The “dashboard” also has the advantage of not taking race into consideration in admissions, a practice being increasingly closed off by the Supreme Court and many states. At the same time, it helps diversify campuses. And in emphasizing a key quality for academic success, it may help prevent lawsuits that claim discrimination in admissions. One school already using the metric, Florida State University, reports it has helped raise nonwhite enrollment to 42% from 37%.

The tool is not an absolute measure of resourcefulness. It misses other types of circumstances, such as personal or family problems. Colleges must weigh many factors in admissions. Still, it could lead to a greater focus on character in education beyond the traditional pursuit of knowledge and career skills. Graduates who have excelled despite their hardships are highly desired by today’s employers. They have found a capacity beyond perceived limitations of either place or potential.

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