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Learning in the Shadows and in the Light of Day: A commentary on Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment

From: Social Forces
Volume 89, Number 2, December 2010
pp. 475-481 | 10.1353/sof.2010.0063

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Learning in the Shadows and in the Light of Day:
A commentary on Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment

Buchmann, Condron and Roscigno argue in their article, "Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment," that the activities in which students engage to prepare for college entrance exams are forms of shadow education, a means by which more advantaged parents seek to pass their privileged status along to their children. By providing their children with shadow education, advantaged parents help them achieve higher scores than they otherwise would have achieved and further increase the differences between the exam scores of more advantaged and less advantaged children. Using data for the high school class of 1992, BCR demonstrate that (1. children of more affluent parents are more likely than children from lower-income families to take a private test preparation course or enlist the services of a private tutor, but no more likely to engage in other forms of preparation, (2. students who participate in test preparation activities enjoy significantly higher SAT scores than students who do nothing to prepare for the exam, and (3. SAT scores account for some, but not all, of the association between test preparation and the odds of attending an elite college.

In this commentary I focus on the main contribution of BCR's article: the application of the concept of shadow education to SAT and ACT test preparation.1 I argue that BCR's conception of shadow education is flawed in two important ways. First, some of the activities they consider as "shadow education" are not shadowy at all; they are widely available free of charge to most students. The only true forms of shadow education here are private test preparation courses and private tutors. Second, the way they operationalize the concept of shadow education makes it impossible to discern the extent to which these true forms of shadow education contribute to student test scores or postsecondary destinations. I offer an alternative interpretation of BCR's results. I suggest that shadow education in preparation for college entrance exams is a relatively ineffective means of improving test scores but nonetheless quite important in terms of its psychic benefits. Expensive test preparation activities such as private classes and tutors allow affluent parents to assert their power over a process largely beyond their control, that of elite college admissions. These efforts appear to do little to increase their children's chances of gaining admission to an elite college or university, but serve to at least partially assuage the needs of the affluent to feel they have done everything they can to pave the way for their children. [End Page 475]

What is Shadow Education?

According to BCR(2), shadow education includes educational activities "occurring outside of the formal channels of an educational system that are 'designed to improve a student's chance of successfully moving through the allocation process.'"(Stevenson and Baker 1992:1640; see also Bray 1999; Baker and LeTendre 2005) Shadow education confers advantage on already advantaged students and thus contributes to the reproduction of social inequality. Shadow education is different from other mechanisms that contribute to educational inequality such as school segregation and tracking or ability grouping within schools that fall under the control of educational organizations because shadow education takes place outside of the formal school setting.

Stevenson and Baker (1992, emphasis added), who provide a much narrower definition of shadow education than that endorsed by BCR, put it this way, "Shadow education encompasses a large set of varied educational activities that are firmly rooted within the private sector. Students and their families pay tuition for private schools to prepare them for examinations, purchase workbooks with questions from previous examinations, and pay for practice tests that are administered and graded by private companies."(1643) Shadow education not only operates outside of formal schooling, it exists in the private as opposed to the public sphere. Shadow education has economic costs that bar most disadvantaged families from participation.

BCR do not restrict shadow education to the private sector nor do they require a means of excluding disadvantaged students from receiving these services. According to BCR, shadow...