Class in the Classroom: Why Middle-Income Students Are Being Left in the Dust
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Improving the odds
Many parents not in the 1 percent still have money to spend on their child's education; one thing they spend on is test prep—even for the youngest ones.
Ever since the city instituted a test to determine admission to elementary school gifted and talented programs, parents wanting to get their child in the elite and free classes have hired tutors and sent their children, as young as 4, to programs—one dubbed a "boot camp—aimed at improving their odds on the test. Last year, the Department of Education changed the test to one they said would be less vulnerable to test prep. Worried parents still scooped up copies of test prep material costing $149 and flocked to tutoring programs. "They can keep switching tests from now until doomsday and it's not going to make a difference," said James Borland, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, told the Wall Street Journal .
Borland and other experts generally believe that any single test tends to favor students from more advantaged backgrounds. Giving the test to such young children only magnifies that result as a child who has had test prep and gone to a high-quality preschool program will almost certainly score higher than a child who spent his or her toddler years with a babysitter who plunked the kids down in front of the TV.
Borland's prediction proved correct. As in the past, more children in affluent areas took the test, and a higher percentage of them then passed it. In District 2, which includes many of Manhattan's wealthiest areas, 28.2 percent of the children who took the test scored in the 97th percentile, the theoretical cutoff for the citywide gifted program, compared to 4.7 percent for District 8 in the South Bronx. Falling between these extremes was District 30, which includes middle-income neighborhoods, such as Astoria and Sunnyside. There 12.2 percent of the test takers passed.
Earlier this month the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York, which represents many of the city's elite private schools, announced it would no longer require that the schools use an exam called the E.R.B. to help determine which 4- and 5-year-olds they'll accept. The group reportedly decided that widespread test prep had made the results all but meaningless. Of course, the applicants to kindergarten at the likes of Chapin and Dalton are playing on a level field: They all can afford test prep. When it comes to the public school gifted program, many applicants cannot.
The role of race
The income gap continues once children start school. On the 2013 state standardized math tests, admittedly a flawed measure due to the generally poor results, District 2 students fared the best, with 60.2 percent getting the 3 or 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4) to qualify as "proficient." Only 17 percent of District 8 students did that well, and its neighbor—District 7 in the South Bronx—had the lowest scores with only 9.5 percent "passing" the exam. Middle-income District 30 was in the middle—with 35.4 percent of children getting 3s and 4s. The English test scores followed a similar pattern.
If students are grouped by income citywide, 21.3 percent of those students who quality for a free or reduced price lunch (the shorthand schools use to indicate which students are low-income) scored proficient on the English exam and 24.8 percent on the math, compared to 50.0 percent and 53.1 percent of those who don’t qualify for assistance. In other words, the achievement gap between those who qualify for lunch and those who don’t is 28.7 points in English and 28.3 points in math.