Study: People’s socioeconomic background determines academic success more than test scores

The gap starts as early as kindergarten. Among economically disadvantaged kids, black students have it especially hard. They are left behind by 8th grade.

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When you have a talented student from a socially disadvantaged background and a less-talented student from a privileged background, often it’s the more privileged student who makes it.

How socioeconomic status is tied to succeeding in school and beyond is among the findings of a new report from researchers at Georgetown University. The report analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics to attribute for the academic results of students from kindergarten through college.


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The gap starts at the beginning

The gap starts at kindergarten. Among economically disadvantaged kids, black students have it especially hard.

Six in 10 black students who had above-median test scores as kindergartners have been left behind by eighth grade, compared to fewer than four in 10 white and Latino students and two in 10 Asian students.

And for those who don’t start out with great test scores, their chances of improvement depend on class:  a child from an “affluent” family with who scores low in kindergarten is more than twice as likely to recover and have high test scores in eighth grade as a low-scoring kindergartener from a poor family.

To break it down, a kindergartner from an affluent background with test scores in the bottom half still has a 7 in 10 chance of reaching a high socioeconomic status by the time they’re a young adult.

And a disadvantaged kindergartner with test scores in the top half has approximately a 3 in 10 chance of attaining high socioeconomic status by the age of 25.

By high school, it’s often too late, and the talent has been lost: 49% of economically disadvantaged students who had above-median math scores in kindergarten have below-median scores in eighth grade.

It’s not just how rich or poor a child’s family background is, either, but also how “protective and enriched” their home environments are.

As of 2016, families in the highest income quintile spent around $8,600 per year on “enrichment activities,” whereas families in the lowest quintile spent around $1,700 per year. This includes things from books, school supplies, and computers to summer camps, music lessons, private tutors, and extracurricular classes.

Higher socioeconomic status parents also spend more time reading to their children – and it could be extrapolated that perhaps they have more time to do so, assuming that in a disadvantaged family, more children are being raised by a working single mother.

By 10th grade, it was found, achievement patterns for both the privileged and the underprivileged were pretty much set. High test-scorers didn’t tend to see their scores fall, and low test-scorers didn’t tend to see their scores go up.

No matter where they fall academically, poor tenth-graders are less likely than affluent students to enroll in college or to complete college if they do go.

Still, there’s one skill that particularly helps a student from a poor background: good math skills. High math scores in high school increase the changes that a student from a poor background will eventually get a good entry-level job as an adult.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.