One of the Best Predictors of SAT Scores is Your Family’s Income
By Joe Bruns — The results for the 2013 SAT scores are out, and the annual ritual handwringing, finger-pointing, calls for reform and some occasional bragging are in full throat.
While the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida scores were below the national average (again), and the Los Angeles Times lamented a 2% drop in California student scores, the Washington Post headlined score increases for Virginia and the District of Columbia, while also noting declines in Maryland. National Public Radio reported with the glass-three-fifths empty lead-in that “roughly 6 in 10 college-bound high school students who took the test were so lacking in their…skills, they were unprepared for college-level work.”
Getting the basics out of the way, 43% of those students who took the SAT attained scores indicative of being prepared for college work, according to The College Board, which administers the test. This has been steady for five years.
The College Board, in their press release, goes on to state some findings that seem pretty obvious. Students who take core college preparation curricula are more likely to do well, as are students who take Advanced Placement courses, and, seemingly the most obvious, students with high GPAs.
More African-American and Hispanic students took the SAT in 2013, and they did slightly better than last year. But, overall, performance lags compared to other groups.
College admissions officers are quick to point out that SAT scores are only one of many factors they take into consideration. Some colleges are dropping the requirement for the test entirely, or offering other, sometimes imaginative ways to show academic promise, as Leon Botstein, President of Bard College has done, while declaring ‘war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.’
Still, the SAT is used as a tool by admissions officers, and while some disagree, it purports to be an indicator of future academic success. Otherwise, what value is it?
Looking at the College Board data one item that really caught my attention was the distribution of SAT scores by family income level. Perhaps not surprisingly, but with astonishing consistency, one of the best predictors of SAT scores is your family’s income.
It’s often difficult to conclude cause and effect. But it seems obvious that families with more money can afford better schools in the form of private schools, or living in more affluent communities with better public schools. They can also afford tutors, summer enrichment programs and SAT preparation classes, and enjoy better health care and even better nutrition for their children. So, it is not at all surprising that the more wealth your family has, the better you should do on the SAT.
But, if wealth is being concentrated more and more at the top, graphically displayed in the clip below, and SAT scores follow wealth, what does that mean for economic mobility?
American higher education has long been considered a path of opportunity. No matter what your background, what your family did, immigrant or native, you can rise on the economic ladder by hard work leading to a college degree. The City College of New York, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and our public Land Grant Universities, all accepted as part of their mission expanding social mobility.
But, a ProPublica study, reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, shows that since 1996, a smaller proportion of grants are going to students in the lowest family income brackets though the recession hit those in lower income brackets the hardest.
To state again, I am not suggesting that college admissions is inherently unfair. The wealthy kids are better prepared, and they get the best seats. The real problem though, is that the pool of college qualified high school students is tilted toward wealth. As this continues over time, generation by generation, the effect further concentrates elite education opportunity among the already high-wealth demographic.
It should come as no surprise, then, that our higher-education system is becoming increasingly stratified by race and income.” — Awilda Rodriguez in The Chronicle for Higher Education
Affirmative action programs based on income rather than race might help in the short run, but if it means drawing from a pool that is not well prepared for college, it can also lead to drop-outs, failure and frustration, to say nothing of student debt. And, adding to the problem, elite colleges are actually reducing need-based financial aid.
We Need a National Commitment to Fix our Schools, Particularly in Economically Disadvantaged Neighborhoods
The problem is systemic, and is not permanently addressed by affirmative action or other similar programs. We need to start fixing the problem at an early stage if we are to affect outcomes in high school. Poor schooling in the basics leads to poor performance in high school. The root cause of high school dropout and poor SAT scores is the same. Too often, poor children go to ‘poor’ schools. These schools lack the resources, leadership and teaching of schools that are being attended by rich kids. Compare a school in a poor urban district to that in an affluent suburban neighborhood. Most often, the difference is striking. And that is just comparing public schools. The wealthy also have access to private schools to turbocharge their built-in advantage. Testing and slogans won’t change this dynamic. Money to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers and administrators, money to modernize and renovate facilities, money for nutrition, after-school and summer learning programs is needed. While dollars alone can never get to the real differences between the schools it would certainly help. In return for higher salaries and better working conditions, teacher’s unions would need to jettison rules that impede the removal of bad teachers. And, of course, we need greater parental involvement.
Unless and until we begin to get serious about providing all of our children in all of our schools the advantages provided to the more fortunate in society, we will keep them at a disadvantage at every step, including depriving them of access to the American dream of working hard, getting a good education, and moving up the economic ladder.
– Joe Bruns (Cajun Joe) is a Trail Mix Contributor