The decision to give students who take the SAT test a numerical rating that reflects the challenges they have overcome in life is the most telling sign yet that universities across the country are searching for ways to diversify their classes without considering race or ethnicity.
The so-called adversity rating gives admissions officials a way to learn about a students neighborhood and school, factors that have been found to help or hurt academic achievement. The score, which does not account for the students race, will be part of an Environmental Context Dashboard sent to colleges in addition to test results.
With the plan, the College Board, which administers the SAT, is joining a broadening movement among all levels of education toward using race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action. From public schools in Chicago to elite universities in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Tallahassee, Fla., institutions across the country are trying a broad range of measures to pinpoint and level out disadvantage among students.
The new tool for the SAT, a standardized exam taken by two million students each year, gives the movement toward race-neutrality perhaps its biggest boost, distilling the complexities of disadvantage to a simple number from 1 to 100. It anticipates a time when the American higher education system may move beyond considering race, in favor of factors like poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods and struggling schools.
Considering that students of color that apply have higher disadvantage levels on average, its hard to imagine that using the dashboard would not lead to an increase in racial diversity, said Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at the University of Michigan.
But the plan also drew protests from those who argued that not including race in the adversity score ignored a key aspect of societal disadvantage, apart from things like wealth and education. Some experts questioned whether colleges could achieve the diversity they wanted solely with race-neutral measures.
I see this as a potential tool to address a separate issue: socioeconomic diversity, which is separate from racial diversity, Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, said.
Efforts to make diversity measures race-neutral are not limited to college admissions.
A decade ago, Chicago, a city with the third-largest public school system and a long history of segregation, considered race when determining admission to its most competitive high schools.
But in September 2009, a federal judge ended a desegregation consent decree with the Department of Justice, prompting a radical revamp of the admissions process.
Selective high schools in Chicago now admit 30 percent of their students based on grades and test scores, and turn to socioeconomic factors for the rest.
The district uses a complex formula that analyzes the citys census tracts for six factors: median family income, percentage of single-parent households, adult education level, percentage of owner-occupied homes, percentage of households in which English is not the first language and achievement scores of neighborhood schools for students living in the census tract.
The College Boards new tool for the SAT is in some ways an expanded version of this, using 31 factors related to the test takers neighborhood and school. It does not account for individual circumstances.
You can look at children who spend some time in a good environment and some time in a bad one, said John Friedman, an economics professor at Brown University. For each extra year you spend in a good environment, you do a little better. Its very powerful when somebody overcomes that.
In recent years, public universities in states that have banned affirmative action including California, Florida and Michigan have used strategies like guaranteeing admission for top graduates from each high school in the state, giving priority to low-income students, improving financial aid packages, stepping up recruitment and eliminating legacy preferences.
The College Boards plan comes as challenges to affirmative action are making their way through the courts or in federal investigations. Harvards admissions process went on trial for a month last fall, as it battled allegations that it held Asian-Americans who on average score higher than other races on the SAT to a higher standard in admissions.
Harvard says it does not discriminate, and at trial the university argued that considering socioeconomic factors alone would not bring in enough minority students of the academic caliber that it wants.
A Boston federal court judge is due to decide the case this summer. But it is widely expected to go up to the Supreme Court.
The new adversity score may signal an effort by the College Board to preserve the SAT at a time when it is under attack, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who consulted with the College Board on the tool. There have long been racial disparities in SAT and other standardized test scores a factor in some colleges decisions to make the tests optional.
For the SAT to survive it needs to come up with a new way of ensuring that it can coexist with racial diversity in elite colleges, Mr. Kahlenberg said.
Eric Maloof, the vice president for enrollment at Trinity University, a liberal arts college of 2,500 students in San Antonio, said he had used the College Boards tool as part of a pilot program that began a few years ago, in part to ensure that his school maintained racial diversity as it became more selective.
It has since taken on greater significance, he said, with current court battles over affirmative action. Knowing the gravity of what could be coming down the road, its nice to know we have this in our back pocket if circumstances change, he said.
Florida State University also volunteered to participate in the pilot. John Barnhill, an enrollment management official there, said that the university had previously gleaned information about disadvantage through essays, or ferreting it out of the application.
We were looking for a different way to objectively measure adversity, he said.
He acknowledged the pushback. There are certainly people who believe this tool takes spaces from qualified white students and gives them to unqualified students of color, Mr. Barnhill said, but that is not how it works.
In the initial data the College Board has collected on some schools that have tried out the new tool, it found that disadvantaged students who did not attend high schools known to be regular feeders to college were more likely to be admitted, said Dr. Bastedo, who served as a consultant on the project. The tools impact on the admission of racial minorities has not yet been analyzed.
The pilot program included 15 schools, then expanded to 50 schools. It will expand again to 150 in the fall, and more broadly after that, officials said. Some schools volunteered to participate; others were recruited.
College Board officials said that the impetus for the adversity score had come from colleges. It came from requests from our members, a good number of whom work in states that prohibit the use of race in admissions, said Connie Betterton, vice president for higher education access and strategy at the College Board.
Ms. Betterton said the company had tweaked the formula after feedback from colleges: It had added, for instance, a stronger measure of urbanicity and rurality.
At this point, the adversity score is not reported to the test taker, and that secrecy has been strongly criticized. In response, the College Board said it was considering making the rating available to students.
Mr. Kahlenberg said the adversity score was a long-needed corrective.
The SAT was designed as a way of identifying disadvantaged students to enhance social mobility, Mr. Kahlenberg, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Harvard case, said. Over the years it became a mechanism for preserving privilege.
Julie Bosman and Audra Burch contributed reporting and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.