Road to College: The “Dashboard”

On the Road to College, standardized tests occupy much space in the minds of students. Some even decide to study and prepare with an act tutor in order to better their chances of getting into college. Of course, that will be but the first of many tests to come. While the message I share with my families is to focus on taking difficult classes while being disciplined and focused, so as to reduce stress, tests still spark fear so a lot of students seek test prep services. Most of the time, scores reflect a combination of effort and skill proportional to grades and course rigor—not of potential or intelligence, at least not directly. Which brings us to today’s topic: Equity and merit. 

Much has been written and discussed recently about the Environmental Context Dashboard as released by the College Board, incorrectly reported as being called the Adversity Score. As an educator, I was fascinated at how quickly most news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, got the story wrong. Articles boiled down the purpose of the dashboard to a single score. While not an efficient name, the Dashboard attempts to provide a context for student SAT performance. This fact caused many parents to contact me to ask if their child’s high SAT score counts for less just because they live in a highly-ranked or affluent school district. The unequivocally clear answer is: No, the score does not count for less. So, what’s the point of the Dashboard? 

According to the College Board, the Dashboard is designed to provide the following summarized points: 

  • SAT Scores in context
  • Contextual data on the student’s neighborhood and high school
  • Information on the high school.”  

Said even more plainly, if a student is hard-working in a school that may not be optimal for learning or if parents did not have college degrees, a student’s score is likely to be lower than a student who did not face such adversity (hence the Dashboard’s nickname), even with high grades. Furthermore, that score has traditionally not helped elevate them to more select colleges without context even though they were hard-working and high-achieving. So, how to make a decision? What is equitable? What ensures the best selection of students? 

Should this Dashboard spark fear? Only to students on the bubble who aren’t getting high grades in challenging classes and have lower test scores, those who are not taking full advantage of available resources or who are devoting too much energy into extracurriculars at the expense of learning or cultivating skills. These are the students whose spots may be taken by hard-working students from lesser-ranked schools. 

As an educator, I never give up on any of my students regardless of background or income and no matter how unfocused or unmotivated. Most underperformance stems from deep-seeded psychological factors intertwined with with poor study habits. In many ways, this Dashboard is a reminder that the focus of schooling and the Road to College should primarily be on deep learning, growth, the strong foundation of academics, and the mindset of cultivating a sense of purpose. Scores tend to take care of themselves when these elements come together anyway.  

I would like to end this article with a question to parents and educators: What issues or questions matter most to you? Should admissions be a place that tries to reward hard work but take into account inequity in our education systems? What do you think or understand about standardized tests? Email, call, or comment here so that this column can help inform and spark positive discourse! 

Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D. is an educator and founder of Novella Prep. He has 20 years of experience working in admissions, development, teaching, and research at various universities. Prior to launching Novella Prep, Tony worked at the College Board, where he led and managed research on the SAT, PSAT, AP, and other programs. You can reach him at

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About the Author: Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D.