McGowan: Wait, Here’s More SAT ‘Bias’

February 4, 2022

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

When I was 7 years old, my parents forced me and my brother to read a book a week during summer vacation. “Forced” is the most accurate word because my Irish twin and I had little or no use for books when so many other activities availed themselves — swimming in the Long Island Sound, riding bikes, playing guns in the woods, tossing a baseball around, climbing trees and just lying around in the grass. Instead, for several years, we had to read books.  We thought our parents bordered on sadistic.

We moved in 7th grade and I met a kid named Gerry. His parents had the same rule, if you can believe it! Read books even during summer vacation. We became reading buddies.

In our youth, we did not know that our parents were on to something that researchers over the years have shown to be true. E. G. Spira studied low-income first graders who had trouble reading. They found that that “the divergence between children who improved and those who did not was established by the end of 2nd grade.”  Early grades appear to be important to children’s ability to read.

The importance of reading proficiency in early grades, as differentiated from mere basic reading ability or below basic reading ability, has been demonstrated repeatedly.  As one researcher said, “educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of third grade. Students who fail to reach this critical milestone often falter in the later grades and drop out before earning a high school diploma.” That researcher also found that “graduation rates for black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lagged far behind those for white students with the same reading skills.”

Reading expands minds, young and old, though third-grade reading proficiency is crucial.  As research for the Annie B. Casey Foundation put it, “For children, a critical transition takes place during elementary school: until the end of third grade, most students are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, students begin reading to learn.”  In 4th grade, various subjects are accessed through reading. Math depends on reading, history depends on reading, geography depends on reading, and so on. And ability to read extends far beyond the early grades: “Not only does reading serve as the major foundational skill for school-based learning, but reading ability is strongly related to opportunities for academic and vocational success.”

Others noted the ability to read as the first component of educational success (my parents were clairvoyant): “Parental involvement variables that show promises according to their correlations with academic achievement are: a) reading at home, b) parents that are holding high expectations-aspirations for their children’s academic achievement and schooling, c) communication between parents and children regarding school, d) parental encouragement and support for learning.”

SAT tests do indeed measure accurately a student’s “general cognitive ability” and could be used as a proxy measure for intelligence, but they are biased. They are biased in favor of people who read.

As an endnote: After losing contact with Gerry for 45 years, I found his address. I wrote him a note thanking him for being a friend who encouraged reading in me. I told him I’d become a professor.

He wrote back, thanking me for getting in touch with him. “I’m a professor, too,” he added.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 


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