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SAT Scores in New York City: A Large and Unrelenting Gap

Yesterday, the College Board released its annual report on the SAT, and New York City was quick to follow suit with data on the performance of NYC high school students on the SAT. Citywide average scores fell a few points, at the same time that the numbers of Black and Hispanic students taking the SAT increased. Writing in the Daily News, Rachel Monahan summarized the DOE spin, courtesy of DOE spokesman Andy Jacob: (a) More Black and Hispanic students took the SAT, and fewer white students did; (b) the increasing numbers of SAT-takers are less likely to be high performers than SAT-takers in the past; (c) therefore, let’s focus on the increased representativeness of the test-taking group, and ignore the fact that scores fell among Blacks and Hispanics, and that the achievement gap is still huge.

I don’t think that we should pay too much attention to single-year changes in test scores of any kind, and especially the SAT, which commenter CarolineSF points out are taken by a self-selected group of high school students. But this year’s snapshot nevertheless reveals some hard truths about the performance of New York City’s high school students.

Let’s address the representativeness issue first. Is there evidence that the rising numbers of Black and Hispanic students taking the SAT reflects a dramatic change in the kinds of students who are taking the SAT? Can we explain the falling average Black and Hispanic SAT scores as reflecting a new group of low-performing NYC high school students striving to get into college?

I compared the number of Black, Hispanic, white and Asian students who took the SAT in 2008 to the number of 2008 high school graduates, as calculated in the New York State graduation rate for the 2004 NYC 9th-grade cohort. The 10,196 Black SAT-takers in 2008 represented 77% of the number of Black high school graduates in the 2004 9th-grade cohort. The similar number of Hispanic test-takers in 2008 represented 79% of Hispanic high school graduates in that cohort. (The percentages for white and Asian students were 78% and 93%, respectively.)

What this implies is that, as of 2008, it was already the case that the vast majority of Black and Hispanic students New York City on track to graduate from high school were taking the SAT. And these percentages likely increased in 2009. Nationally, about two-thirds of SAT-takers are high school seniors, and the New York City data, as I understand them, are for all SAT-takers, not just seniors. Nevertheless, the implication is that most college-eligible minority students in New York City are already taking the SAT. For this reason, it’s hard to make the argument that a new influx of low-performing Black and Hispanic youth accounts for the declines in SAT scores among Black and Hispanic youth in NYC and for NYC overall.

Two other key points: For each of the four major racial/ethnic groups, New York City students perform more poorly on the SAT than do students across the nation. The first figure below shows that, on all three components of the SAT—critical reading, mathematics and writing—Asian, Black, Hispanic and white youth in New York City score lower than their counterparts elsewhere. (The scale of the bars is standard deviation units, but the bars are also labeled with the number of points separating NYC from the nation overall.) The gaps are smallest for white and Black students, and somewhat larger for Hispanic and Asian students. Hispanic youth in New York City score about .4 standard deviations below Hispanics across the country, or about 45 points lower on each of the three sections of the SAT. Asian students in NYC score about 50 points lower on the critical reading and writing sections than Asian students across the country, and about 25 points lower in math.

The second figure shows the magnitude of the achievement gap within New York City. The columns represent the distance of a racial/ethnic group’s mean score from the citywide average, in standard deviation units. Each column also is labeled with the number of SAT points separating a group from the citywide average. For example, the first column in the left panel indicates that Asian SAT-takers in NYC in 2009 scored 9 points above the citywide average in critical reading.

The achievement gap separating Black and Hispanic youth in New York City from white and Asian youth on the SAT is humongous. The smallest distance among these groups is the 56 points separating Black and Asian youth in critical reading performance. The largest gap is the 151 point difference in the average performance of Blacks and Asians. If we limit ourselves to whites as a comparison—as the Bloomberg/Klein administration routinely does, even though there are approximately equal numbers of white and Asian children in the New York City public schools—the gaps are huge: 94 and 99 points, respectively, separating Black and Hispanic SAT-takers from white test-takers on critical reading; 115 and 108 points, respectively, for mathematics; and 103 and 108 points, respectively, for writing.

Results such as these are prima facie evidence that the achievement gap distancing Black and Hispanic youth from their white and Asian counterparts in New York City is large and unrelenting. The challenge of creating equal educational opportunity for all in New York City will take a lot more than boosting the percentage of minority students who are rated proficient on state ELA and math tests.

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