Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Haves vs. The Have-Nots

By Eric J. Seymour — November 05, 2010 4 min read
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In August, Associated Press reporter Eric Gorski noted that the average score on the ACT college-entrance exam inched downward this year. According to Gorski, the scores were the lowest in five years. In 2005, the ACT published its own policy report noting that some low-scoring students were “... [from] low-income and minority communities, [where] limited resources may make it difficult for schools to access and effectively deliver postsecondary planning information.” The report explained, “These low-income schools are less likely to offer their students upper-level and college-preparatory courses. ...”

If we consider this finding in light of the federal government’s annual “Condition of Education” report, in which the proportion of high-poverty public schools jumped from 12 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2008, we start to get a clearer sense of why scores have declined nationally.

Even with state and federal governments spending billions of dollars in an effort to close achievement gaps, through the No Child Left Behind Act and the more recent Race to the Top initiative, we continue to see point variations on college-entrance-exam scores. I believe it all comes down to the “haves”—those who have access to college test-prep courses—vs. the “have-nots”—those who don’t.

Here are the facts: Over the past several years, standardized admission tests have become progressively more important in undergraduate admissions, particularly for highly selective colleges. For students who are finalizing their college choices, ACT and SAT scores are one of the last crucial factors over which they still have control. But at a cost of $2,000 or more for ACT and SAT preparation courses, and the price promising to rise, many students, especially those from low-income families, must forgo assisted preparation. These students are at a significant disadvantage in competing against the “haves,” who spend countless hours and thousands of dollars to improve these scores. For a limited number of enrollment slots—even for admission at public colleges and universities—the haves are at a definite advantage.

How much impact do these facts have on scores? A recently released book, Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College from the Century Foundation, a nonprofit public-policy research institution, found that an SAT test-taker categorized as “highly disadvantaged [low-income, black, with parents who did not complete high school, attending a high-poverty public school] is expected to score 784 points lower than the highly advantaged student [wealthy, white, with highly educated parents, attending private school]. ... If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, advantaged kids start off 65 yards ahead of disadvantaged kids as the race begins.”

To use another sports analogy: This is not a level playing field. An Aug. 27, 2009, New York Times article, “SAT Scores and Family Income,” noted, “Generally speaking, the wealthier a student’s family is, the higher the SAT score.” And, “On every test section, moving up an income category was associated with an average score boost of over 12 points.”

The proverbial truth is in the numbers. In 2009, the highest SAT scores, which averaged 1702 points and were an increase of 26 points from the previous year, were posted by students who said their families earned more than $200,000 a year. In contrast, students who reported family incomes of less than $20,000 a year averaged 1321 points, an increase of only 1 point from the previous year.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Closer analysis suggests that students who completed a core curriculum, took their schools’ most rigorous courses, and familiarized themselves with college-entrance exams were among the stronger performers. No one questions that most educational institutions work continuously to address these in-school academic factors, along with an even more fundamental need: to provide equal access to a quality education for students of every background.

Where we do fall short is in providing equal and adequate preparation for college-entrance exams. Fortunately, there are a variety of high-quality and affordable options available to schools, including district-sponsored test-prep courses and commercial programs. I have firsthand evidence that providing these affordable options works.

As the principal of Vero Beach High School in Florida, I believe it’s my job to help our students soar in day-to-day classes and on college-entrance exams.

Last year, we gave every one of our 2,800 students free access to the Web-based Study Island courses to help them prepare for the ACT, the SAT, and the Advanced Placement exams, during and after the school day. Because the program is Web-based, students could study when and where they wanted. All they needed was Internet access. The exam preparation made a difference. This past year, we had eight National Merit Scholarship finalists, which doubled the school record.

Let’s face it. We all know that in the highly competitive college-admissions process, a higher ACT or SAT score can be a significant differentiating factor on a student’s application. As a country, we must make a concerted effort to provide students of every background with equal access to such preparation programs, or we will all suffer. It shouldn’t be that hard to eliminate the “versus” from the haves vs. the have-nots. It can start with improved and accessible college-entrance-exam preparation courses for all.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Haves vs. the Have-Nots


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