The more money a family in Maryland earns, the more likely their child is to have higher-than-average SAT scores, according to data released by the College Board on Thursday.
On average, students living in poverty scored hundreds of points below wealthy students on the national tests used in college admissions, giving them an advantage during the process.
"The SAT tells you quite a bit about where you come from, but not very much about where a kid can go," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit that believes the SAT should be optional in the college admissions process. "It assesses how much of an opportunity a kid has had in life."
The data show that not only are poor students at a disadvantage, but so are middle-income students compared to the wealthy.
Students whose families made more than $200,000 a year scored 79 points higher on average on the critical reading and math tests combined than those whose income was between $160,000 and $200,000. The SAT includes a math, critical reading and writing section. A perfect score for one section is 800, so added together a student could score 2,400.
Scores went up steadily for every $20,000 of family income, but the smallest jumps in test scores were for students whose families earned between $100,000 and $200,000.
Even a small bump in test scores can mean a lot for students in the admissions process. According to a National Association of College Admissions Counselors survey in 2009, as little as 30 points on the scale can make a difference in whether a student is admitted.
Families with higher income generally have more time and resources to devote to their children. Studies have shown, for instance, that higher-income families have parents who have graduated from college and who speak more words to their children during the first few years of life. The number of words a child speaks can determine long-term success in school.
A myriad of other factors contribute to achievement of high-income students, said Schaeffer, including how varied their experiences are during childhood, the number of books on the shelves at home and the schools they attend. Wealthy families also have money to pay for their children to take test preparation courses.
Poor children spend much of their time in school trying to catch up, said Jack Smith, chief academic officer at the Maryland State Department of Education, adding that schools should be the leveler.
"We have done it to some degree. We haven't done it to the degree we should," he said.
Many students defy the averages, Smith said. Poor students earn perfect SAT scores and wealthy students score well below the mean.
Smith pointed out that the educational attainment of parents also strongly correlates with SAT scores.
In fact, students in Maryland with a parent who had a graduate degree had a mean reading score of 569 compared with 417 for students whose parents had never graduated from high school. Smith said the mother's educational level is a greater predictor of educational achievement than the father's, even in families with a mother and father living together.
Overall, Maryland scores on the SAT for graduating seniors were steady. The state's composite SAT score stayed at 1,498: 496 in critical reading, 514 in math and 488 in writing. The composite score was just 1 point off the national average.
In Baltimore County, graduating seniors' mean scores on the SAT increased by 23 points on the three sections of the test. But the percentage of students taking the SAT fell from 57.5 percent last year to 55 percent.
In Carroll County, scores were slightly lower than the year before. The mean score on reading was down 3 points to 514, while the mean score on math fell 2 points to 526. But both scores were significantly above the state and national average.
In Harford County, school officials said reading was up 6 points, math was up 4 points and writing was up 5 points.
Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Howard counties had not released their scores Wednesday.