Does money make you smarter? Actually, yes

Apparently, the SAT doesn't just test how smart you are or how hard you've worked in school. In most cases, it quite accurately reveals how much money your parents make:

As the chart above documents, there's a startling correlation between family income and SAT scoring that holds up throughout the entire income spectrum. The more affluent your family, the more likely you are to have high test scores. Those at the upper income brackets on average will test 400 points higher than those at the bottom income bracket. (The data come from the College Board and from FairTest, aka the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.)

FairTest argues that such results reveal inherent bias in the tests, and that may be true to a degree. But the results also accurately reflect basic factors that influence academic performance: How many books are in the house, the vocabulary that you're exposed to at an early age, diet and living conditions, the quality of the schools that you attend, family expectations and the family network, whether you've ever gone to a museum or seen live theater, your access to tutors and other special help, etc. And yes, cultural values have a definite impact. People raised in families that value education will do better than those who are not.**

Overall, however, it's pretty clear that people who come into this world at the lower end of the economic scale have a much harder time making it than do those born into upper-income families. In this case, they would certainly have a harder time making it into top-of-the-line colleges that a gateway to professional success. Some certainly manage to do so, but the struggle is much harder. Conversely, people born into upper-income families have a much harder time throwing away the advantages that come with their birth, although again, some certainly manage to do so. It shouldn't be hard to admit that basic truth.

I don't think there's a cure for such a phenomenon, but it does suggest ways to lower the hurdles for success among poorer Americans and make opportunity more real. Nobody is talking about guaranteeing equality of outcomes; the much less difficult goal of guaranteeing equality of opportunity would itself be impossible. But recognizing the disparity of opportunity and taking steps to reduce it ought to be the goal of any decent society.


** But please, spare us all the crank, pseudo-scientific effort to bring genetics into the discussion: Native intelligence is equally distributed throughout the income scale. Given the degree of mixing in the genome pool -- more now than at any point in the history of our species -- you'd have to isolate the wealthy or the poor on Galapogos Island for a thousand years before you'd begin to see a change in DNA. While society may have become more economically stratified, it is absurd to suggest it has produced a genetic impact.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.