Class Notes

Keeping Score

How test prep widens the achievement gap

By Paula Marantz Cohen | June 4, 2013


A recent New York Times opinion piece by Stanford education professor Sean F. Reardon argues that the achievement gap between affluent and middle-class (as well as poor) children in this country has widened significantly in recent years. Using comparative statistics on standardized math and reading tests, he notes that score disparity is now about 40 percent higher than it was in 1960. SAT test results show a similar gap, translating into increased percentages of affluent students gaining admission to elite colleges, completing college, going on for graduate degrees, and landing competitive jobs.

Reardon notes that the schools aren’t failing these middle- and low-income students; their test scores aren’t dropping. It’s just that the affluent students seem to be doing better: “The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly.” But this disparity dwindles at certain junctures: “There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year,” he writes, “but they widen again in the summer months.”

Reardon attributes this to the emphasis affluent homes place on education in the earliest years: “Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and—in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs—access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.”

Note how subtly the culture of test preparation has slipped into this discussion. For the difference between it and cognitive enrichment is noteworthy. Affluent families do have more books in their homes, speak with larger vocabularies, and provide more access to cultural activities and ideas. But this has always been the case. What is new is the test culture. This has given rise to an elaborate system of coaching, beginning in the earliest years of an affluent child’s life and continuing through high school and college. Test prep, which means learning how to take these tests through special (often summer) courses or individual tutoring, is a fundamental part of upper-middle-class life.

I know no one within my circle of relatively affluent friends who did not enroll their children in an SAT prep course, and in some cases, two or three of them. The gold standard in my community was to sign up with a man with an MBA from the Wharton School of business and a proven record of helping kids raise their SATs by more than 100 points. Students went to his offices on Saturday mornings or during the summer months to take practice tests over and over again. There they sat in little cubicles, scribbling for hours. The tutor then went over the tests with them, explained their score, and gave pointers for how to improve it. This involved learning at least some small amount of real subject matter, but mostly it just taught kids how to think like the test.

Prep-work for affluent children is not confined to testing. They also have consultants to shape their extracurricular profile and teach them how to handle interviews, write college essays, and generally perform in ways that will impress admissions officers and employers. You might argue that learning these things is a form of enrichment. But Reardon’s point about achievement disparities between high and low income leveling out during the school year suggests that these are short-term gains, not substantive ones. They help affluent students ace the tests they need to gain admission to elite programs, schools, and jobs. Once they are in, they have enormous advantages over kids who don’t have the access. But the issue is the prep—and the ability to game the system.

So what to do? We could try to make tests immune to test prep. But is this possible? Probably not. The science of teaching kids when to leave answers blank, when to guess, how to discern a wrong answer from subtle cues in wording is effective, no matter the subject. There’s simply no way to defend the integrity of a test against such techniques.

The other alternative might be to take the opposite tack. Since the affluent are finding ways to get their children to take test-prep courses, the less affluent must do the same. We could subsidize test prep in schools. But logistics argue against this, as it would mean diverting funds away from more substantive educational programs. And it would make the already stultifying test-taking culture even more test-heavy.

The larger problem is not test preparation but the commodification of education. Just as colleges are branded through their ranking in U.S. News & World Report, students have had to turn themselves into the commodities these colleges want. They need to package themselves through test-prep tutors and college consultants. The exorbitant price of higher education merely supports these misguided values and proves that we have lost sight of what it means to be educated.

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