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East Asian Advantage

January 19, 2012

A new study has found that East Asian American students (those whose families come from China, Japan or Korea) are significantly more likely than other Asian Americans and members of all other racial or ethnic groups to take SAT preparation courses, and to benefit from such extra coaching.

The research -- published in the journal Sociology of Education (abstract available here) -- attempts to build on studies of the impact of test prep on the college-going population. For years, some test-prep providers have claimed that their services result in huge gains -- and many others (including testing companies) have questioned those boasts. At the same time, much research has found at least modest gains associated with using test prep, and that fact has raised questions about fairness, since most test-prep services charge fees. The new study focuses on racial and ethnic groups, rather than the student population as a whole, given concerns of many over racial gaps in the average scores.

A key caveat is that the study -- based on federal longitudinal data -- tracked students who were high school sophomores in 2002. In the years since, test prep is generally believed to have become more prevalent, although the authors of the study do not suggest the underlying trends should have changed.

The study examined whether students in different groups enrolled in test-prep courses and, if so, what gains they achieved on the SAT. (Data are based on a two-part SAT, with 1600 as the maximum score.) The study also asked about the use of private one-on-one SAT tutoring (which could include very expensive coaches, or low-expense community offerings) and found that this type of service, on average, had hardly any impact on SAT scores -- regardless of students' race or ethnicity.

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

Notably, the gains come on top of unequal results in SAT scores to start with. Average scores for Asian American students (not broken out by East Asian and other Asian) have been growing at much faster rates than have those for other groups in recent years.

Also potentially significant is that the gains found for East Asian Americans are large enough that they could influence decisions on whether someone is admitted. When the National Association for College Admission Counseling did a study on test prep in 2009, it found that at more than one-third of colleges, a gain of 30 points could "significantly improve" an applicant's chances of being admitted. That study noted that most documented gains in SAT scores were in the 20- to 30-point range (similar to those found in the study examining shifts by race and ethnicity). The figures for East Asian Americans in the new study could suggest enough growth to have an impact. (Of course, many Asian American applicants and their supporters believe they need higher scores than do other groups to be admitted.)

The study finds that the greatest gains for East Asian American students came in the first and second generations, with the gaps decreasing with subsequent generations in the United States. Further, the paper suggests that one reason for the relatively greater success of East Asian Americans could be the development of "cram schools" in ethnic neighborhoods that compete with the better known test-prep companies.

The study was done by Soo-yong Byun, a researcher at the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Pennsylvania State University; and Hyunjoon Park, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

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