Race, Income and College Admission Testing

by | Apr 1, 2019


Researchers from Penn, USC and CUNY did a deep dive into SAT score data. Their research paper can be found here. They analyzed SAT scores and their correlations to:

  • Family Income
  • Race
  • High school grades
  • Parental level of education

The researchers found that a student’s high school grades had the largest correlation to SAT scores, followed by family income then parental level of education. Here are helpful charts from the Washington Post:


Related IFOD: The Matthew Effect.


(Note – the effect of parental education looks bigger than it is in the above chart – stripping out the effects of family income reduces the effect substantially – in other words, the study authors did a lot of math!)

Interestingly, the study found very little correlation between family income and a student’s grades. Thus, while both family income and grades have high correlations to SAT scores, they have low correlations to each other. Here’s a related IFOD on how that sort of thing can happen: Beware! Not All Correlations Are Not Transitive.

Race and SAT Scores

The research paper had some interesting and disturbing findings with respect to black students and SAT scores:

  • White students performed 218 points higher, on average, than their Black counterparts.
  • After adjusting for high school achievement, parental education and family income, there is still a gap between Black and White SAT score achievement of about 70 points
  • Family income has a larger effect on Black student achievement on the SAT than for White students.
  • Poverty has a bigger negative SAT score effect on Black students than White students by almost a factor of two.
  • As high school achievement increased for both White and Black test-takers, the gap between white and black SAT scores grew.

A conclusion by the authors of the study is that “race and class are co-constitutive and inextricably tied.” Further,

The differential effect for high school achievement, along with the differential and large poverty effect, in part, suggests an effect of schooling
where Black test-takers, especially those living in poverty, are likely attending poorer quality schools. In addition, the differential direct and indirect effects of income on high school achievement and, in turn, high school achievement on SAT scores may also be explained in terms of residential racial and economic segregation which are, through property values and tax policies, related to the quality of schooling.


  1. It is interesting that the SAT was originally created as a means of providing greater access to populations that had been historically denied acceptance into the east coast’s finer universities. Then came $300/hr test prep tutors….

    • Great point Susan. As you are probably aware, many colleges are going test optional, meaning that they do not require the ACT or SAT tests. My daughter, when touring trinity college in Connecticut, heard them explain their rationale for being test optional. They said that they found the most reliable predictor of college success, was high school success, not performance on a single test.


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