New SAT Data Highlights the Deep Inequality at the Heart of American Education

By Claire Cain Miller for The NY Times

A 1300 on the SAT (or 29 on the ACT) is a high score, one that can open a path to America’s top public and private colleges. But new data, on students who graduated in the 2010s, shows just a sliver of the country’s poorest students reached that level. Test takers whose families were in the top 20 percent of earners were seven times as likely as those in the bottom 20 to score at least 1300. But the gap was even larger for the children of the richest 1 percent. They were 13 times as likely as the poorest students to score this high. Those in the top 0.1 percent, whose parents earned an average of $11 million (in today’s dollars), scored higher still. When we account for how few poor students take the test, by looking at all students, a new and greater disparity emerges.

It’s a reflection of an inequality in American education that starts long before high school.

New data shows, for the first time at this level of detail, how much students’ standardized test scores rise with their parents’ incomes — and how disparities start years before students sit for tests.

One-third of the children of the very richest families scored a 1300 or higher on the SAT, while less than 5 percent of middle-class students did, according to the data, from economists at Opportunity Insights, based at Harvard. Relatively few children in the poorest families scored that high; just one in five took the test at all.

The researchers matched all students’ SAT and ACT scores for 2011, 2013 and 2015 with their parents’ federal income tax records for the prior six years. Their analysis, which also included admissions and attendance records, found that children from very rich families are overrepresented at elite colleges for many reasons, including that admissions offices give them preference. But the test score data highlights a more fundamental reason: When it comes to the types of achievement colleges assess, the children of the rich are simply better prepared.

The disparity highlights the inequality at the heart of American education: 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. And in the last five decades, as the country has become more unequal by income, the gap in children’s academic achievement, as measured by test scores throughout schooling, has widened.

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