Naysayers responded predictably to news that the College Board, the organization that runs the SAT admissions test, will measure how hard students’ lives have been. They should consider the experience of Seattle’s hometown school, the University of Washington, which tried out the program and now is a booster. Other Washington schools should try it.

The Environmental Context Dashboard — colloquially called the “adversity index” — uses more than a dozen metrics to provide a measure of a student’s life experiences that might have been barriers to academic success.

Schools and the College Board must walk a fine line. They can’t just ask applicants if they come from broken homes or have parents with no college degree or criminal records. Applicants may share whatever they want in their admission essay, of course, but it would be inappropriate for a school to demand such detailed personal information.

Aggregate demographic data can help fill the gap. A randomly selected high school student from South Park is more likely to have faced environmental challenges than one from Mercer Island. Given access to tutors, a prestigious high school, educated parents and a gang-free environment, that South Park student might have scored much better on standardized tests and earned a higher GPA.

The UW was one of the pilot schools for the adversity index and reports success using it. Washington State University and other schools should heed that experience before dismissing it.

Critics of the adversity index attack from both sides. Some people who historically have benefited from the status quo hate to cede any advantage to students from less fortunate backgrounds. Meanwhile, advocates for historically underserved populations argue that standardized tests should be eliminated because they are biased in favor of the privileged.


Both arguments miss the point. The adversity index is one more tool to help schools understand applicants and identify the ones who can excel in higher education and contribute to a diverse, robust academic environment on campus.

Having this tool aligns with Washington’s evolving priorities. A citizens initiative passed in 1999 forbade schools from considering race in admissions. Minority admissions  fell as a result. The Legislature this year ended that ban, but race is a blunt measure as well. It absolutely should be considered, but part of a bigger picture that pulls together as much information as possible.

The adversity index is new. As more schools begin to use it, it might need to be refined, but it already adds crucial information to the admissions conversation.