DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, so the SAT test is getting some big changes. As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, some schools are piloting a new tool that they hope will give them a lot more information about students than their test scores do. Here's NPR's Cory Turner.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The tool is called the Environmental Context Dashboard, and it's meant to give colleges data on the kinds of disadvantages that students may have had to overcome to get to college.
DAVID COLEMAN: And the question is can you just give everyone a test and say, hey, it's fair - the playing field is level? So what we say today for the first time is no.
TURNER: Now, that may not sound so radical, except that it's coming from the man behind the test, David Coleman. He's CEO of the College Board. Coleman says this new dashboard will help colleges see that playing field more clearly. For example, if applicants attend a high school where most of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
COLEMAN: The big news here is by looking at SAT scores and that data together, you reveal a third thing, which is resourcefulness. What have you done given those disadvantages and what have you made of them?
TURNER: The dashboard also tries to capture challenges students may face in their neighborhoods. It gathers publicly available information like average family income, educational attainment, housing stability and crime rates for the areas where students live. It does not, however, collect information specifically about an applicant's race or ethnicity. Coleman says about 50 colleges have been piloting the dashboard in their admissions process. And they include Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
ERIC MALOOF: It has served us quite well.
TURNER: Eric Maloof is vice president for enrollment management at Trinity.
MALOOF: Yeah, we've been thrilled. This year's class is actually our most diverse class that we've ever enrolled.
TURNER: That diversity includes socioeconomic and geographic diversity and comes as the school has become much more selective. But Maloof says Trinity has not seen a dramatic increase or decrease in acceptance rates based on race. The university does not require admissions staff to use the dashboard for all students. It's most often used to distinguish between thousands of applicants who have...
MALOOF: You know, similar grades, similar scores. And this gives us one additional input into a very holistic process. It's one of many things that could be a tiebreaker.
TURNER: But this dashboard also has lots of skeptics in higher education.
TIFFANY JONES: What I think is a positive step is a public acknowledgement of the limitations of the SAT.
TURNER: Tiffany Jones is director of higher ed policy at the Education Trust, and she applauds the College Board's acknowledgment that the playing field is not level for kids and that many bring real disadvantages to the SAT. But Jones argues the best way to level that playing field isn't just with more data. It's for colleges to stop relying so much on the SAT and ACT.
JONES: The overuse of standardized test scores in the college admissions process can perpetuate systemic racial and income inequality.
TURNER: Jones says schools going test-optional could encourage many more disadvantaged students to apply. As for the dashboard, she says the fact that it's race-neutral means it's just not set up to help students of color who must find their way to college in spite of persistent institutional racism. The College Board says the dashboard will be broadly available to colleges next year.
Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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