Failing Low SES Students: Why it is Better to be Rich than Smart

By David Bressoud @dbressoud

The Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University has just released an important report, Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why equally talented students don’t get equal chances to be all they can be. The study compares socio-economic status (SES)—measured by parental income, education, and occupation—with educational performance as measured by mathematics assessments. Both are good predictors of attainment of a post-secondary degree and above median income by age 25. It is not surprising that SES status is more important than intellectual ability. What is shocking is the extent to which SES status shapes the future of talented students.

But low SES is not the whole story. As CEW documents, white and Asian students have a strong advantage over black and Latino/a students from the same SES class.

The first illustration in the Center’s report (Figure 1) shows that most of the students in the bottom half of math scores in kindergarten but top quartile SES will complete a college degree by age 25. Only 25% of students in the top half of math scores in kindergarten but bottom quartile SES will complete a college degree by age 25.

Figure 1: page iv in Carnevale et al. 2019. Math scores are a good indicator of early career success, yet 71% of high SES students with bottom math scores in kindergarten will move into above median SES by early career while 69% of low SES students with top math scores in kindergarten will move into below median SES by early career.

Figure 1: page iv in Carnevale et al. 2019. Math scores are a good indicator of early career success, yet 71% of high SES students with bottom math scores in kindergarten will move into above median SES by early career while 69% of low SES students with top math scores in kindergarten will move into below median SES by early career.

Mathematical ability in eighth grade is an important predictor of readiness for college and subsequent success (see, for example, Champion and Mesa, 2017). One of the most disturbing aspects of the Georgetown analysis is the effect of SES on this ability between kindergarten and grade 8. Essentially half, 49%, of lowest SES quartile who had been in the top half of math scores in kindergarten had fallen to the bottom half by grade 8. By comparison, only 12% of students in the top SES quartile fell from top half to lowest half (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Of kindergartners who score in the top half in math, highest-SES children are less likely to stumble, and more likely to recover by the time they reach the eighth grade, than those in the lowest SES. Figure 6, page 19 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Figure 2: Of kindergartners who score in the top half in math, highest-SES children are less likely to stumble, and more likely to recover by the time they reach the eighth grade, than those in the lowest SES. Figure 6, page 19 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Just making it to the top half of math scores by kindergarten is a considerable accomplishment for low SES students. Only 26% of the bottom SES quartile score in the top half, while 74% of the top SES quartile make it to the top half.

Racial and ethnic disparities are huge, beginning with the fact that only 16% of white children fall within the lowest SES quartile, while 35% of black/African American children and 50 of Hispanic/Latino children are in this lowest SES class. But racial and ethnic disparities go beyond SES status. A white student with below median SES is more likely to have a kindergarten math score in the top half than a black student with above median SES.

Figure 3:   Both high- and low-SES White and Asian children are more likely to have top-half kindergarten math scores than their Black and Latino peers. Figure 12, page 27 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Figure 3: Both high- and low-SES White and Asian children are more likely to have top-half kindergarten math scores than their Black and Latino peers. Figure 12, page 27 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Perhaps most striking is the racial disparity in the change in math scores from kindergarten to grade 8, regardless of family SES (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Regardless of SES, Black kindergartners with bottom-half math scores are much less likely than their White, Latino, or Asian peers to have top-half math scores by the eighth grade. Figure 13, page 28 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Figure 4: Regardless of SES, Black kindergartners with bottom-half math scores are much less likely than their White, Latino, or Asian peers to have top-half math scores by the eighth grade. Figure 13, page 28 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Figure 5: Regardless of SES, Black kindergartners with top-half math scores are more likely than other kindergartners to have bottom-half math scores as eighth graders. Figure 14, page 29   in Carnevale et al. 2019.

Figure 5: Regardless of SES, Black kindergartners with top-half math scores are more likely than other kindergartners to have bottom-half math scores as eighth graders. Figure 14, page 29 in Carnevale et al. 2019.

The CEW report observes that

Strong academic preparation boosts a low-SES child’s likelihood of economic mobility, but society provides too few children from low-SES families the opportunity to fully develop their academic skills. Those who show high achievement early are much less likely to reach their potential without supportive structures in place, and even those who never fall behind academically can still face environments that preclude their success. (p. 37)

It continues with the observation that the effect is self-perpetuating,

What’s more, these inequalities can persist for generations. Children who can’t escape limiting economic circumstances, or whose options are circumscribed by continuing racial and ethnic disparities, may be unable to provide advantageous environments for their own children. And so the cycle reinforces itself. (p. 37)

The report concludes with four policy recommendations. The first is based on the huge discrepancy that occurs in preparation for school: Expand academic interventions that start before kindergarten. The second acknowledges that even those of low SES who start strong are at a considerable disadvantage as they progress through K-12 education: Continue academic interventions throughout K-12. The third and fourth recommendations address disparities in the advice that students receive as they make the transition to college and career: Improve and expand high school counseling and Integrate career exploration and preparation into the advising process.

References

Carnevale, A.P., Fasule, M.L., Quinn, M.C., and Campbell, K.P. (2019). Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why equally talented students don’t get equal chances to be all they can be. Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce. https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/schooled2lose/

Champion, J. and Mesa, V. (2017). Factors affecting calculus completion among U.S. high school students. pp 9–25 in The Role of Calculus in the Transition from High School to College Mathematics. (D. Bressoud, ed.) Washington, DC: MAA and NCTM. https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/RoleOfCalc_rev.pdf