Each year, students in California public schools sit to take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress exam, which determines how prepared students are for college. Those test scores were just recently released, and while students in the Los Angeles Unified School District scored better on this year’s state standardized test than last year’s, only 39 percent of students met the benchmark standards in English and only 29 percent meet standards in math. Despite how low these numbers remain, the district did improve by 4 percent and 6 percent in math and English respectively. This year’s scores remain notably low for certain groups, such as black students and those learning English as a second language.
Wealthier schools, such as Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in the Hollywood Hills (where 84 percent of students met the English standards and 83 percent met the math standards) tend to outperform more economically disadvantaged schools on exams of this nature. Standardized tests that measure aptitude and college readiness reflect the trend in K-12 education that illustrates the large impact wealth has on a student’s education. Thus, these tests often predict a student’s wealth more than his or her intelligence and should not be given as much weight by government and education officials when determining a student’s aptitude for success.
Though opinions differ as to why, on K-12 achievement tests and college entrance exams, lower-income students, as well as black and Latino students, consistently score below privileged white and Asian students. In fact, the socioeconomic status of a child’s parents has always been one of the strongest predictors of the child’s academic achievement and educational attainment. Some explanations as to why this gap exists relate to neighborhood conditions, school quality, parental investments, the educational attainment of the parents and family structure. These gaps still persist, as apparent in this year’s LAUSD CASPP scores, despite decades of research and numerous studies attempting to explain and close them. However, one recent related study shows a closing of one major socioeconomic gap dealing with kindergarten readiness. Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education, studies the gap between wealthy and impoverished children in terms of how prepared they are to begin kindergarten, and how that gap has changed since the late 1990s. From 1998 to 2010, his research illustrates how the gap between wealthy and poor students’ preparation for kindergarten has improved by about one month’s more time of instruction. This is an achievement, especially considering the skills that children possess when they enter kindergarten can be very predictive of how the child will progress through school.
Scores on college entrance exams such as the SAT also illustrate a strong correlation between wealth and high scores. What is ironic, however, is that the SAT was devised as a tool to identify talented students from underprivileged backgrounds, and was originally thought of as a test of aptitude rather than learned knowledge. According to John Katzman, president and founder of The Princeton Review, predictive tests like the SAT measure “only about 18 percent of the things that it takes to do well in school,” and have only a 4 percent chance of predicting success in college. SAT scores are strongly correlated with income, parental educational attainment and ethnicity. Thus, wealthy white or Asian students, whose parents have a graduate degree, and who have taken the PSAT before the SAT, are more likely to get high scores on the exam than a minority student whose parents have a only a high school degree. The difference in exam scores between two such students could be as high as 400 or 500 points.
Overall, less importance should be given to exams that seek to measure student intelligence. These sorts of high stakes standardized tests, like the CASPP and other exams in United States public schools or college entrance exams like the SAT, are not accurate measurements of what students have learned. They cannot assess critical thinking skills and instead teach students how to memorize information more than learn actual material. Moreover, these types of exams more often illustrate a link between high test scores and family wealth more than innate or learned intelligence.
Julia Lawler is a senior majoring in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.