AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The College Board is adding an extra score to the SAT, but this one has nothing to do with vocabulary or math. It's meant to quantify a college applicant's social and economic background. Anya Kamenetz from our Education team has been following this story. She joins us now. And Anya, tell us what this new score is, exactly.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Yeah. They're calling it the environmental context dashboard, and it puts together factors like household income in a student's neighborhood, whether they live in a rural area or a city or even the local crime rate. And they put it all together into a score from zero to 100, with 100 being the most disadvantaged.
CORNISH: Why this approach? Why now?
KAMENETZ: So the SATs have been around for almost 100 years, and the scores that students get have always been heavily correlated to family income and level of education of their parents, not to mention with race. And this is being seen as a problem, especially in today's climate when we're having what seems like a society-wide conversation about fairness and opportunity in higher education, as you saw with the admissions scandal we've all been hearing about with wealthy families bribing and cheating their way into schools. And the SAT, therefore, is under pressure. Hundreds of colleges, actually, in recent years have dropped both the SAT and the ACT and made it test-optional because they believe that with high schools - high school grades, it's just as good a measurement, and it enables them to open up their doors to students from a wider range of backgrounds.
CORNISH: I understand that College Board actually did some testing before they rolled this out. What did they learn?
KAMENETZ: Right. So they spent the last year piloting this tool at 50 colleges, including Yale and Michigan. And these colleges say that it gave a boost to disadvantaged applicants and - so that this might be a way to identify undiscovered talent. For example, your SAT score might look unimpressive on its own, but if you compare it to your classmates' and you outperform them by a wide margin, maybe you're a very adept student after all. And David Coleman, the president of the College Board - he says his mission's really big. He says it's nothing less than to restore people's faith in the idea of a level playing field.
DAVID COLEMAN: We're at a moment in this country where a lot of people think if they're born in a certain condition - that they're never going to make it to the top of our society. And the problem is - given what's happening with mobility - is they're right.
CORNISH: Is this new score actually going to address critics' concerns, though?
KAMENETZ: You know, I don't think it's going to convince everybody. I talked to Todd Rose at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he compared the SAT test, with its bell-curve results, to the 19th-century pseudoscience phrenology.
TODD ROSE: It's phrenology, but we've added an adversity score to it. And you're like, yeah, that doesn't really change the underlying problem that bumps on your head don't correspond to ability.
KAMENETZ: So the idea that you can add adversity or any other measurement of background is going to make up for the flaws - what he sees as a flaws in the test - doesn't really hold water. And Todd Rose's point is that colleges shouldn't just be comparing students to each other, but that we should have more real-world-style assessments of whether students can actually do the kind of work that is required in college, as well as more opportunities for students of all different abilities and backgrounds to shine and to reach their full potential.
CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team. Thank you.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.