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  • Racial Differences in Test Preparation Strategies:A commentary on Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment
  • Sigal Alon

Racial Differences in Test Preparation Strategies

Claudia Buchmann, Dennis Condron and Vincent Roscigno's study, titled "Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment," demonstrates that vigorous use of expensive test preparation tools, such as private classes and tutors, significantly boosts scores on standardized exams such as the SAT or ACT. This preparation, in turn, promotes access to more selective institutions. Because access to preparation varies according to social class, it turned out to be a key lever in the social transmission of privilege. One of the noteworthy findings in the BCR study is the racial and ethnic differences in the use of test preparation: blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation. The black-white gap is especially pronounced in the use of high school courses, private courses and private tutors. The Hispanic-white gap is more modest, and is limited to the use of private tutors.

The black-white gap in test prep is surprising given blacks' lower levels of social and financial capital and the well-documented test score gap. In 2006, for example, the black-white test score gap was about 200 points, a decline from a gap of 250 points three decades ago (The College Board 2006). Consequently, in this comment, I wish to delve into the black-white variation in test preparation strategies in order to better understand its patterns and consider its relation to the edge black applicants receive in admissions at selective colleges and universities with affirmative action policies. My main objective is to outline a theoretical framework that will shed light on the racial and ethnic disparity in test preparation. In the interest of parsimony, I focus here on the pronounced black-white differences, yet the data indicates that the patterns for Hispanics and Asians are similar to those for blacks and whites, respectively, which strengthens the generalizability and relevance of the proposed framework.

The analytical strategy I use conforms to the BCR study in terms of the dataset, multiple imputation, analytical weight and sample.1 Like BCR I use an indicator of highest-level test preparation but also constructed a variable that counts multiple test preparation activities. Unlike BCR, a distinction is made between private (private courses and tutors) and public (books, videos, software and high school courses) types of test preparation. This distinction is theoretically important because private preparation is not only more effective in raising [End Page 463] test scores but also more expensive than publicly available resources. Private preparation explicitly captures the notion of shadow education.

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Table 1.

Test Preparation by Race

Racial Differences in Test Preparation

BCR demonstrated an advantage for blacks in test preparation, conditional on an array of background characteristics. The results in Table 1 show that this advantage exists even when we do not control for family and academic background. Blacks used test preparation more than all other groups: 84 percent of blacks used at least one form of preparation compared to only 68 percent of whites, and were also more likely than whites to be engaged in multiple test preparation activities. The black advantage is notable in regard to all forms of test preparation except in the use of self-preparation materials such as books, videos and software. The black-white gap, therefore, is mostly incurred by the utilization of private preparation (private courses and tutors). In that light the gap is even more fascinating because blacks are generally a more financially disadvantaged population than whites. This puzzle raises questions about the financial resources, educational expectations, and commitment to preparation and higher education of black high school students.

Before proceeding it is important to assess whether the black advantage is an artifact that results from the use of a sample of test takers who either already took a standardized exam or were planning to do so, which is the case in both the current and the BCR study. These samples naturally select for more ambitious students with relatively high academic achievements, aspirations and...


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