October 27, 2015

October 27, 2015 – Socioeconomic background factors, including family income, education, and race/ethnicity, account for a large and growing share, over a third, of the variation in students’ SAT scores, according to a new study published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Of those factors, race is now most influential.

 “The Growing Correlation Between Race and SAT Scores: New Findings from California,” by Saul Geiser examines a sample of over 1.1 million California residents who applied for admission to UC between 1994 and 2011. Geiser is a CSHE Research Associate and the former director of research for admissions and outreach at UC’s Office of the President.

The study uses a statistical method known as regression analysis to examine the relative influence of different socioeconomic background factors on SAT scores, after controlling for other factors.  In 1994, family income, education and race together accounted for a quarter of the variance in students’ scores, and parents’ education was the strongest predictor. By 2011, the same socioeconomic background factors accounted for 35% of the variance in SAT scores, and race/ethnicity had become the most important factor. “Rather than declining in salience,” states Geiser, “race has now become more influential than either family income or parental education as a determinant of test performance. The California findings should give pause to those who assume that racial and ethnic disparities in educational opportunity will inevitably narrow over time.”

Geiser cautions that more research is needed to determine whether the California findings reflect a broader national trend. A major obstacle to that research is missing data on the socioeconomic backgrounds of SAT takers.  When students take the test, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their background, but over half of all students now decline to report family income and other socioeconomic information on the SAT Questionnaire. 

 The best alternative source of data may be other state university systems that, like the University of California, receive applications from a sizeable proportion of test takers in their states. Because those institutions collect socioeconomic data on applicants for purposes of financial aid as well as admissions, the quality of the data they collect tends to be more complete and accurate than the SAT Questionnaire data.

 The study calls on institutional researchers in other state university systems to independently replicate the California study with their own applicant data from the past 20 years. “It is important that this work be conducted independently of the national testing agencies both because of the unreliability of the SAT Questionnaire data and also to avoid any potential conflict of interest, whether in perception or in fact.”

 The National Association for College Admission Counseling has offered to serve as a clearinghouse for this research.  NACAC has long called for colleges and universities to “take back the conversation” from the national testing agencies and conduct their own independent research on admissions testing.  NACAC has offered to support this effort by providing a forum for institutions to share their findings.

 Geiser discusses the policy implications of the study findings for the continuing national debate over consideration of both race and the SAT in college admissions. One key implication concerns the use of SAT scores to predict how applicants are likely to perform in college.  Because socioeconomic background factors are correlated not only with SAT scores but also with college outcomes, much of the apparent predictive power of the test actually reflects the proxy effect of socioeconomic status.  After controlling for SES, SAT scores are a relatively poor predictor of how students will perform in college, especially students of color.

 At the same time, racial and ethnic group differences in SAT scores are not reducible to differences in family income and parental education alone. “There remains a large and growing residual effect of race/ethnicity after those factors are taken into account.”

 Accordingly, colleges and universities that continue to use the SAT need to take account of applicants’ socioeconomic background, including race, in order to ensure fairness in admissions.  “SAT scores can have different meanings for different applicants, so that it is essential to consider test performance in light of individual context and circumstance. Race is a demonstrably relevant aspect of that context.”

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Information on Author:  Saul Geiser is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and former Director of Research for Admissions and Outreach for the University of California Office of the President.

Saul Geiser