A thought experiment: Johnny is a poor kid in a Rust Belt neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh. Suzy is a student at a tony private high school in the suburbs of New York City.
Johnny and Suzy were born with the same natural intelligence, but when they take the SAT during their junior year of high school, their results don’t reflect that fact. Johnny scores a respectable 1600; Suzy scores an excellent 1800 — better than 80 percent of other test takers. For Johnny, something has gone wrong, but what? Pay close attention to the way people answer this question and you’ll realize why it’s almost impossible to have the conversation about economic opportunity that we actually need.
Last week, the College Board — the organization that administers the SAT — announced an overhaul of the important college admissions exam. While many of the changes are sensible, their announcement heralded a wave of handwringing about the inequities built into the test. To these critics, Johnny’s relatively poor performance had nothing to do with effort, or knowledge, or even upbringing. Johnny failed because he didn’t have access to expensive test preparation from the likes of Kaplan. Basically, Suzy’s parents bought her score.
At the popular blog Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok effectively demolishes this argument. Research indicates that even the best tutors barely improve student performance — by about 15 points of 800 on the Math section of the SAT, for example. Now, this doesn’t mean that if you pluck two kids at random, one who’s had test coaching and one who hasn’t, their scores will only differ by a few points. In fact, their scores will likely differ a great deal. The point is that the test coaching caused very little of the difference. In the words of education expert Derek Briggs:
Coached students are more likely to be Asian and in the top socioeconomic quartile than their uncoached counterparts. Coached students spend more hours studying outside of school, are more concerned about the reputations of the colleges to which they plan to apply, are more likely to have a private tutor helping them with their schoolwork, and are more likely to be encouraged by their parents to prepare for the SAT or ACT.
Briggs’s research shows that test coaching is little more than a lagging indicator of other things — like parental involvement, prior academic achievement, and student ambition — that produce more gifted kids. It’s easy to focus on test prep, but it’s a very small part of the equation. The more useful question is why low income children lack so much else.
It’s also a more difficult question. We know, for instance, that since the 1970s, the time that college-educated parents spend with their children has skyrocketed relative to that spent by other parents. Unsurprisingly, by the time poor children start school, their vocabulary is thousands of words smaller than that of wealthier kids. But this doesn’t seem to be because the uneducated parents lack the time, as the poor (who are largely uneducated) work significantly fewer hours per year. So you have to look elsewhere for a cause: Maybe the uneducated don’t know about the advantages of reading to their youth. Maybe they’re unsure how to encourage academic pursuits. Or maybe some lack the community pressure so necessary for group success. Low amounts of what economists call social capital in many of these communities suggest that all of these things are true. (Of course, such kids mostly interact with low-vocabulary adults and peers, too.)
This hasn’t stopped the emphasis on test preparation. The U.S. News reported that many of the initiatives instituted by the College Board aim to level a playing field allegedly made unlevel by expensive tutoring services. As the College Board president, David Coleman, said, “Too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.”
This isn’t so bad per se — test prep may be a false villain, but it’s not especially harmful either. The real problem is what the obsession with test prep reveals about our own biases. Test prep has become another convenient scapegoat in the American debate about upward mobility. Broken communities, from churches to schools? Uninvolved parents? Inadequate information? Poor nutrition? The College Board isn’t talking about these problems, and virtually every news outlet that covered the SAT changes followed suit. Better to focus on test prep during a kid’s 17th year than everything that happened during the first 16.
I’m sure America’s poor children teem with gratitude. After all, if all goes according to plan, they’ll score 15 points higher on their next SAT.