(CNN) -- The roughly 2 million fledgling college students who take out their No. 2 pencils for the SAT each year will now be assigned a score reflecting not only math and verbal skills but also their social and economic backgrounds.
The College Board, which administers an exam already fraught with anxiety for teens and parents alike, plans to implement a new yardstick it calls the "Environmental Context Dashboard."The index is being referred to widely as the "adversity score."
It measures factors such as crime rates and poverty levels in students' neighborhoods to reflect their "resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less," according to David Coleman, the board's chief executive officer.
Here's what you need to know about a change that coincides with a national debate over college admission procedures and student diversity.
How is the score calculated?
Students are scored on a scale of 1 to 100 based on data from records such as the US Census and the National Center for Education Statistics. A score of 50 would be considered average, while a number over 50 indicates more hardship, according to the College Board.
The score takes into account information from the student's background, but it does not include race.
Instead, it focuses on factors like their high school's average senior class size, percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, and academic achievement in Advanced Placement classes.
Other factors include a student's environment at home and in his or her neighborhood, like the crime level, the median family income, and family stability.
Michael T. Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University, wrote in Forbes that he was skeptical.
"The College Board has not revealed the factors or their weights in calculating adversity scores beyond claiming that some of the data are from public sources and some are proprietary," he wrote this week.
"This is unacceptable. If it refuses to disclose how adversity scores are calculated, the College Board should not expect the public to accept them."
Jeff Thomas, executive director of admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep, also questioned what he called the lack of transparency on the calculation.
"To that end, it remains to be seen how admissions officers will evaluate an adversity score relative to the more traditional admissions factors," he said in a statement.
"Suffice it to say, it won't trump the importance of factors like GPA and SAT scores, though it may offer additional context."
What does the score determine?
The nonprofit College Board says the score offers insight into the resourcefulness of students.
The Environmental Context Dashboard has been piloted at 50 colleges and universities, including Yale and Florida State, according to the College Board. It will be more widely available next year.
At participating schools, applicants from "higher levels of disadvantage were more likely to be admitted, suggesting that the additional context influenced admissions outcomes," according to the board.
The dashboard rating doesn't alter a student's SAT score. It shows how a student's' SAT score compares to those of other students in their school. It doesn't include personal characteristics beyond the test score.
Pace University President Marvin Krislov believes the score tells only part of a student's story.
"It won't let admissions officers know if the student has overcome a major disability or illness," he said in a statement. "Or if the student has experienced a significant loss. But it can be a useful new factor in a holistic admissions review."
Nietzel wrote, "Measuring neighborhood adversity is not the same as assessing an individual student's resilience or grit. Although we can't know for sure, it's doubtful that adversity scores measure the influence of parents, siblings, and mentors on a student.
"There's not a straight line from socioeconomic background to SAT performance; assigning an adversity number suggests an influence that may not be operating for individual students, and it probably overlooks influences that are."
What do critics say?
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing said the measurement is another College Board attempt to defend the SAT from mounting evidence against relying on standardized tests.
"Test-makers long claimed that their products were a 'common yardstick' for comparing applicants from a wide range of schools," Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the center -- also known as FairTest -- said in a statement.
"This latest initiative concedes that the SAT is really a measure of 'accumulated advantage' which should not be used without an understanding of a student's community and family background."
More than 1,000 accredited colleges and universities now decide admissions without using ACT or SAT scores for all or many applicants, the statement said.
Colleen Ganjian, founder of DC College Counseling, told CNN that college admissions officers are already inundated with personal information about potential students.
In a blog post, Top Tier Admissions said the College Board plan raises numerous questions.
"Is it fair that the College Board, the group that has designed a test that has proven to be unfair and biased towards black and Hispanic students and those from low income backgrounds, is now telling everyone that they have a secret score that somehow mitigates the discrimination?" the post said.
"Is it fair that the College Board penalize students who happen to live in affluent areas and attend good schools, especially those schools that don't offer AP courses?"
What do proponents say?
Florida State University has used the dashboard for two years. Nonwhite enrollment has jumped from 37% to 42% in the incoming freshman class, according to John Barnhill, the university's assistant vice president for academic affairs.
"One thing our pilot revealed is that the more adversity an individual has faced in their school and neighborhood, the more likely they are to be a student of color," Barnhill wrote in an email.
The dashboard offers "at-a-glance information" and context in a "digestible and objective format," he wrote.
"You might see a student's score and think, not bad but clearly below our university average. But then when you compare it to the school, it might be above the 75 percentile, which means they outperformed most people at their school," he said. "I believe this context is a more accurate reflection of what the score represents."
Neighborhood information offers a deeper understanding of student achievement, he said.
"The reviewers felt so strongly about the value-added data from the tool that we decided to use it in all our sections for the first time in college class enrolling this summer and fall," Barnhill said.
Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, which plans to use the dashboard, said the most important admission factors will not change. They include grades and the rigor of courses, standardized test scores, recommendations, extracurricular accomplishments and student essays.
"It's possible that for some students this data will give us information we don't already have and that insight will help us make more informed decisions," he said in an email.
Coleman, the College Board's CEO, told CNN Saturday that the dashboard spotlights students who have defied odds by excelling in demanding circumstances.
He gave the example of a young woman in Mississippi whose SAT score was about average overall but about 400 points higher than classmates at her high school.
Through the dashboard, admissions officers learned "that she lives in a community rife with poverty, in a school that lacks a lot of advance learning opportunities and they saw that she was extraordinary, that she was so resourceful."
The tool moves beyond the narrower definition of factors such as race to paint a broader picture of student adversity in places like rural America, Coleman said.
"The Environmental Context Dashboard is going to bring to light far more rural students, many of whom are white, but who are in high schools without advanced learning opportunities," he said.
"They can't show as many AP scores. They don't have a situation with as much resource at home or in the neighborhood and they're often overlooked because admissions officers are not as familiar with these places."
Will students and high schools have access to the scores?
The answer, for now, is no.
Nietzel, Missouri State University's former president, wrote that keeping the information from students reflected the College Board's "own discomfort with the concept."
"And for good reason. It's a potential source of self-handicapping and self-fulfilling prophecy," he wrote in Forbes.
The College Board is looking into making the information available to students, said spokesman Zachary Goldberg.
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