SAT score gaps reveal deeper inequality in education, opportunity

This week, The New York Times highlighted data that “for the first time at this level of detail” reveal the significant disparity in standardized test scores between students from high- and low-income households—a manifestation of educational gaps that begin years before students ever take the exam. The data, from economists at the Harvard University-based nonprofit Opportunity Insights, reinforce how economic inequities students experience early in, and throughout, their childhood shape their longer-term opportunities.

“The disparity highlights the inequality at the heart of American education,” the Times says. “Starting very early, children from rich and poor families receive vastly different educations, in and out of school, driven by differences in the amount of money and time their parents are able to invest.”

Related: New book: Georgetown authors explore higher ed’s role in fostering, fixing inequality >

The implications of family income

For the new research, economists from Opportunity Insights matched test takers’ SAT and ACT scores from 2011, 2013, and 2015 with their parents’ federal income tax records from the previous six years; they also analyzed students’ admissions and attendance records.

In a series of infographics, the Times shows how students’ chance of having a high SAT score increases with their parents’ annual incomes. Test takers whose families were in the top 20% of income earners were seven times as likely as students in the bottom 20% to score a 1300 or above—a level of achievement that “can open a path to America’s top public and private colleges,” the Times writes. Test-takers from the top 1% of household incomes were 13 times as likely to earn a 1300 or higher as those from the bottom 20%.

When looking at all students—not just those who took the test—researchers found that one-third of students from the highest income households scored a 1300 or above on the SAT, compared to less than 5% of students in middle-class households. The rate was just 0.6% among students in the lowest income quintile, reflecting how few of those students—just one in five—even took the test.

Lingering effects of economic inequity

Experts say the findings speak to advantages that wealthy students experience, not just in their preparation for standardized tests and other assessments colleges use to measure student success but also in the educational and enrichment opportunities they have beginning in early childhood.

“Kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods end up behind the starting line even when they get to kindergarten,” Sean Reardon, the Stanford Graduate School of Education endowed professor of poverty and inequality in education, tells the Times. Generally, he explains, “schools aren’t very good at undoing that damage.”

Related: What awaits low-income students on elite college campuses? >

Economic and racial segregation across U.S. schools is one primary reason, experts say. Students living in different neighborhoods have disparate educational opportunities—and few avenues to build friendships across class lines that could enrich their educational experiences and outcomes. Schools located in underserved districts experience higher rates of teacher turnover and may use the few resources they do have on school repairs rather than on teacher recruitment and field trips. This dynamic traps students of color in poorer neighborhoods and high-poverty schools, according to research from Stanford.

What students experience outside of school—including how they spend their summers; what stressors they experience at home; whether they have access to tutoring, therapy, or after-school activities—has an even more significant role in forging, or foreclosing, pathways to higher education. Wealthier parents spend more money on what researchers call “shadow education,” or educational opportunities beyond formal education. In contrast, students from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to have limited access to extracurriculars and to have their formal education disrupted by food and housing insecurity.

“Parents, regardless of race, nationality, income, they have big dreams for their kids, they want them to do well in school,” Reardon tells the Times. “But if you’re worried about whether there’s food on the table and the heat’s on in winter, it’s very hard to make sure you set aside an hour before bedtime to read to your kids.”

Policies that support universal pre-K, provide more funding for underserved K-12 schools, and reduce economic and racial residential segregation are critical to address the root causes of disparities that play out later in standardized test results and, ultimately, college access, experts say.

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