Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Strategies for Leveling the Educational Playing Field

New research on SAT/ACT test scores reveals stark inequalities in academic achievement based on wealth
Graduation caps being tossed

As an academic, David Deming says it is always tempting to think that we have to better understand major problems before we can solve them but, when it comes to the profound disparities in K–12 education in America, he is convinced that isn’t the case. 

“We actually know what to do, we just lack the political will to do it,” he says.

The scale of the inequities is laid bare in new data recently analyzed by Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and fellow economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Opportunity Insights. In their research, the team looked at the role that wealth plays in admission to elite colleges and, in doing so, scrutinized the test scores of more than 5 million students who took the SAT or ACT in 2011, 2013, and 2015 along with their parents’ incomes, by studying federal tax records.

The researchers found that more than 30% of students from the very wealthiest families had strong scores that were well above average: 1300 or higher on the SAT or 29 or higher on the ACT. Less than 5% of the students from middle-income families had such successful scores. In fact, at a time when it was widely required in higher education, only about one in three students from the bottom half of the family income distribution even took a college entrance exam. 

To help close the huge achievement gaps outlined in the study, Deming offers the following solutions:

1. Broaden access to high-quality early childhood education for everyone. 

Inequalities, including health outcomes, start early — even before birth — according to Deming, and disparities begin to set in before kids show up to kindergarten. “The difference between the home environment and the preschool environment is very, very large, especially for families who don't have the resources to send their kids to private nursery schools,” he explains, and having 3-year-olds sitting at home, “is not helping them get a leg up.” Kids who attend good preschools arrive at kindergarten ready to learn because they have already begun to acquire important skills, such as how to get along with peers and self-regulate.

2. Spend more money on all public schools.

Because of the pandemic, schools around the country have received federal aid dollars through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, but Deming says, “a one-time helicopter drop of money is way less effective than just sustaining higher levels of spending.” He proposes taxing citizens at a higher rate to fund schools since it is more expensive to educate students than it was in the past and because schools are “are important investments in the next generation.” 

3. Increase spending in schools in low-income communities.

Schools serving low-income families should, in Deming’s view, receive additional money in order to attract and retain qualified teachers, which can sometimes be challenging in poorer districts, and to also reduce class sizes. “That's the kind of thing that can lead to sustained gains and achievement for everybody and closing of achievement gaps,” he explains.  

4. Add instruction time.

“We know how to teach people,” Deming says, we just need, “more seat time, more instructional time, more time on task,” and longer school days and school years, including teaching on Saturdays and over the summer, as well as supplemental tutoring for those who are struggling to catch up due to the pandemic or otherwise. 

He understands there may be resistance to some of his ideas, but fears that in a few years we will “see some examples of success, but also see a lot of lost opportunities,” when it comes to closing achievement gaps. “We just have to decide to make [education] a priority as a society, and I’m very concerned that we’re not,” Deming adds. 

The end of standardized testing? Not so fast….

As for those who might look at the vast differences in academic outcomes, tied to wealth, as a reason to scrap the SAT and ACT altogether, Deming thinks that would be a mistake. He considers the findings in his study to be “more a statement of the sum total of inequality in America,” and the disparities an indication that many students from lower-income families are less prepared for college “not because they’re not as smart, [but] because they haven’t been invested in, they haven’t had as much attention from teachers,” he explains.

While he has concerns about how the SAT is administered, that he would like to see addressed — such as allowing students to pay to take the test multiple times to get the highest score possible — Deming says, for highly selective colleges like Harvard (which is currently test-optional), the exam can be a helpful tool for finding students from less privileged backgrounds who have great academic potential. 

“If we didn’t have the SAT, we’d have no way to identify talent in unusual places and we need to preserve that,” he says. 

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles