SAT myths and reality

A conservative political scientist, Charles Murray, makes a case for abolishing the SAT. He notes that the 2001 study by the University of California system revealed, “The surprising empirical reality is that the SAT is redundant if students are required to take achievement tests.” The study points out that achievement test scores and high school grades were better independent forecasters of a student’s success in college than the SAT score. Moreover, the SAT score did not add in any significant way to the forecast made by the achievement test scores and high school grades.

Murray also tackles some of the myths surrounding the SAT. For instance, here is the myth and the reality about coaching:

From 1981 to 1990, three separate analyses of all the prior studies were published in peer-reviewed journals. They found a coaching effect of 9 to 25 points on the SAT Verbal and of 15 to 25 points on the SAT Math. In 2004, Derek Briggs, using the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, found effects of 3 to 20 points for the SAT Verbal and 10 to 28 points for the SAT Math. Donald Powers and Donald Rock, using a nationally representative sample of students who took the SAT after its revisions in the mid-1990s, found an average coaching effect of 6 to 12 points on the SAT Verbal and 13 to 18 points on the SAT Math. Many studies tell nearly identical stories. On average, coaching raises scores by no more than a few dozen points, enough to sway college admissions in exceedingly few cases.

But the coaching business is booming, with affluent parents being the best customers. If the payoff is really so small, why has the market judged coaching to be so successful?

Most obviously, parents who pay for expensive coaching courses ignore the role of self-selection: the students who seem to profit from a coaching course tend to be those who, if the course had not been available, would have worked hard on their own to prepare for the test.

Then parents confuse the effects of coaching with the effect of the basic preparation that students can do on their own. No student should walk into the SAT cold. It makes sense for students to practice some sample items, easily available from school guidance offices and online, and to review their algebra textbook if it has been a few years since they have taken algebra. But once a few hours have been spent on these routine steps, most of the juice has been squeezed out of preparation for the SAT. Combine self-selection artifacts with the role of basic preparation, and you have the reason that independent studies using control groups show such small average gains from formal coaching.

According to Murray, the overriding truth about the SAT is this:

the children of the affluent and well educated really do get most of the top scores. For example, who gets the coveted scores of 700 and higher, putting them in the top half-dozen percentiles of SAT test-takers? Extrapolating from the 2006 data on means and standard deviations reported by the College Board, about half of the 700+ scores went to students from families making more than $100,000 per year. But the truly consequential statistics are these: Approximately 90 percent of the students with 700+ scores had at least one parent with a college degree. Over half had a parent with a graduate degree.

And, he adds, “The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart because their parents are smart. The parents have passed their smartness along through parenting practices that are largely independent of education and affluence, and through genes that are completely independent of them.”


One response to “SAT myths and reality

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