Wednesday, March 5, 2014

SAT scores are linked to Family income. So what?

Bumped to the top from 2009

Just a warning ... I'm going there.

Flypaper, the edExcellence Blog, has commentary on the SAT scores that refuse to go up.
"Gaps widening a bit by race, income, parental education. Indeed, the tidiest relationships and smoothest curves are those that continue—as they have for as long as anyone can remember—to show the steady upward progression of average SAT scores (pdf) as family incomes and parents’ education rise."
Chester then goes on to show some details and to say,
What does this say about 26 years of education reforming since A Nation at Risk? For starters, it says the reform efforts haven’t seriously penetrated our high schools. Then it says that current moves (e.g., the “Common Core” national standards project of the governors and chiefs) to align high-school exit expectations to college and workforce readiness are urgently needed, indeed long overdue.
That's an interesting take. If you can't get results in 26 years of trying reform after reform, let's try another reform! (Insert sound of Bells and Whistles). Then there is the sentiment that "Reforms are obviously urgently needed."

It's true. The only correlated data that ETS has with an R-value greater than 0.1 or so is between scores and family income. The NYTimes has this:
Everyone, of course, dismisses that income-scores correlation as silly, saying "You can't just give the family more money and raise the scores, ha, ha." That's right, but I don't think that money causes good scores, although there is a lot to be said for SAT prep courses, which are really a total review of math and basic grammar and that's good no matter what.

I think the problem is an incorrect correlation, a confounding factor. It's not that A (money) causes B (scores). It's that C causes D which affects B. Simultaneously D causes A.

Parents are the confounding factor.

As I see it, smart parents are likely to have smart children. More importantly, motivated, dedicated, educated and intelligent parents are likely to have M, D, E, and I children. They are also more likely to have money because they work harder for it and are more capable of holding the job and moving up the ladder to the big bucks and higher family income. Simultaneously, their M,D,I, and E children are more likely to have better scores.

Children whose parents were poor because of misfortune or some other external factor don't tend to fit this pattern. They're the Horatio Algers of the world, the kid who worked his way up from the mailroom to CEO. There's no reason to assume the black or Hispanic kid can't be doctor, lawyer, etc. In fact, the kids of those successful (and higher income) blacks and Hispanics are likewise high-scoring and successful. The single mother who instills dedication, motivation, and a healthy respect for education into her kids might not have money but her kids will.

Children whose parents were not motivated, etc., always fit the income-score correlation. Race has rarely been a factor in determining motivation and dedication (simply look at KIPP schools to see that), but it has been an indicator of income due to longstanding segregation and migration patterns. Money doesn't seem to drive scores, but it does correlate.

The constant desire for improvement and reform and reform and change and reform again is doomed to repeat its cycle of failure.

Are reforms necessary? Sure, if you can point to a definitive improvement that will result. I'd appreciate it if you'd define "improvement," first. Improve what and by how much? Student satisfaction, tech-toys, test scores, athletic titles, graduation rates, future wages? Fundamentally, is "success" as defined by "average scores increasing yearly" or "adequate yearly progress" possible? I don't believe so.

I think we should stop looking for the perfect reform because it doesn't exist. We should instead focus our attention on doing the best we can each year with those we have in front of us.

Just sayin'.


  1. Sometimes we really agree.

    Not this time.

    If I can paraphrase:

    Smart adults --> high income
    Smart adults --> smart kids

    If I have this right (and please correct me if I do not) I think it is bunk.

    Let me play loose with the phrase "intellectually enriched environment" and run with it just a bit.

    When people make a certain amount of money (love that "a certain amount" instead of saying "a lot")

    ...they tend to live in more expensive towns. And the schools their kids go to are.... maybe not better, but at least better-funded. Property taxes and US education still go hand in hand.

    ...they tend to have stimulating things around for the kids to play with are more likely to be babysat by someone who is instructed to read to the kid

    ...less likely to be babysat with TV

    ...more likely to be exposed to culturally enriching stuff. Plays. Even opportunities to go to the library.

    ...more likely to travel

    ...less likely to be stressed by dangerous conditions in the house or the building (building!) or the neighborhood

    ...less likely to be physically stressed with a fast-food or nutritionally deficient diet

    I won't go on. The point, whether I've really made it or not, is that most of this depends on the parents' wealth, not on the parents' smarts.

    So, me, I see improving nutrition, getting kids read to, making neighborhoods safer, increasing opportunities for intellectual stimulation, decent childcare, etc, -- I see those as in the long run more promising reforms.

    From the middle and high school teacher point of view, I agree with your conclusion. Let us do the best we can with those in front of us.


  2. How about all the money rich parents spend on SAT prep classes and private tutors? Lower income kids cannot get this extra help.

  3. I know what let's do! Let's tax the rich, and if that doesn't work, let's tax them some more! Then, when there's no rich left, there will be none of this gap between rich and poor!

    But then, about whom will you complain? Is low performance on the part of the poor *really* the fault of the rich? Because that's what I'm taking away from what you quote and what you write.