The SAT has long been derided as a “Standardized Affluence Test,” with reports from the College Board lending credence to the theory that students from higher-income families do better on the SAT than students from families with lower incomes. The rationale is that because such families can afford to send their children to the best private schools and provide them with the best SAT prep tutors, their children perform better on the test.

But Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, claims that parental IQ is the determining factor. He writes in The Wall Street Journal:

It’s a bum rap. All high-quality academic tests look as if they’re affluence tests. It’s inevitable. Parental IQ is correlated with children’s IQ everywhere. In all advanced societies, income is correlated with IQ. Scores on academic achievement tests are always correlated with the test-takers’ IQ. Those three correlations guarantee that every standardized academic-achievement test shows higher average test scores as parental income increases.

Murray goes on to note that because “[t]he relationship between IQ and income was first documented decades ago,” his analysis is “nothing new,” but “people refuse to confront it because it exposes an unwelcome reality.”

I’m inclined to agree with Murray. I went to public schools in Texas, never had an SAT prep tutor, but scored very well on the SAT after taking it once. I’m lucky to have intelligent parents who encouraged me to read when I was a child. Neither of them, however, has a Bachelor’s degree. To me, it seems much more plausible to believe that a poor child with brilliant parents will perform better in school and on the SAT than a rich child with unintelligent parents who happen to have won the lottery. That there is a correlation between IQ and income in all societies suggests not that money means intelligence, but that intelligence often—but not always—means money.

Income inequality is indeed a serious issue in America, and as a member of the 99%, it’s an issue that matters to me. But so far as standardized test performance is concerned, the correlation between higher income and higher test scores cannot be called causation. By examining the implications of this correlation, we’ll better be able to serve every student, regardless of his or her parents’ financial affairs. As Murray writes, America has often been guilty of “punishing children whose strengths do not lie in academics.”

We ought to re-think our “college is the new high school” mentality. Some students might do better starting a business (many of the most successful people of the past century have been entrepreneurs without college degrees), getting an associate’s degree (required for engineering technicians, nuclear technicians, web developers,  MRI technologists, and so on), entering a trade, being an artist, volunteering, joining the military, or applying for a fellowship or apprenticeship.

For kids like I was, though, who couldn’t wait to go to college, who love to learn and weren’t born into wealth: the library is always open.

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