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How Does Your Parents' Income Affect Your Test Scores?

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

It is almost a given that affluent neighborhoods = great schools = high academic performance. To verify this point, I picked four school districts representing the higher and lower end of the household income spectrum in Connecticut and checked their respective school performance (see table below).

Household Income and Academic Performance

It is clear that there is a high correlation between household income and test scores. But are the lower scores explained by lower-income? In other words, does the income disparity cause the difference in students outcome?

According to work done by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane, the answer is yes. Their research shows that "Increases in family income inequality in the United States have translated into widening gaps in educational achievement and attainments between children from low- and high-income families." In this paper (, they explained how income affects school performance—essentially through the roles of families and schools.

Families: there are multiple family-related factors that could drive students' performance. These factors include income and expenditure, family structure, time, and language use. "But evidence establishing causal links between family income and children’s school achievement suggests that the sharp increase in income gaps between high- and low-income families since the 1970s and the concomitant increases in the gaps in children’s school success by income are hardly coincidental."

Schools: similarly there are a few mechanisms through which schools can affect students' performance. For example, increasing segregation of schools based on income (a child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and with behavior problems); Student mobility (children from poor families are especially likely to attend schools with relatively high rates of new students arriving during the school year); teacher quality is another factor for weak school performance in high-poverty school districts.

The researchers concluded that "the decades-long increase in family income inequality has contributed to increasing gaps in educational achievement and attainment between children growing up in low- and high-income families."

The important questions would be what schools can do to help narrow the gap? what policies can be made to effectively level the playing ground for all students? Other than bandaid solutions, is there a permanent cure? what can be done about the root cause—income inequality?

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