ROSEN: Quiz the achievement gap

Looking Left

There’s been a lot of discussion about the issue of class on college campuses recently. The conversation seems to have shifted from simply increasing the number of low-income students who apply and are admitted to elite colleges, to ensuring that these students have access to the same quality of education as everyone else once they are enrolled.

Diana Rosen_Karen TianA study released two weeks ago may have come across a partial solution: Giving quizzes in every class session to college students improves performance, particularly for those from low-income backgrounds.

Three psychology professors from the University of Texas at Austin gave their Introductory Psychology students a brief online quiz in every class session and compared their performance to students who took the course when they previously taught it. They measured socioeconomic status by having the students rank their parents’ highest level of education on a seven-point scale, ranging from no high school to professional degree.

The study found that, once the two classes’ scores were benchmarked, students in the quizzed class performed over half an entire letter grade higher in a 4.0 scale. Even more strikingly, the gap between upper and lower class students was reduced from 0.71 to 0.34 letter grades, almost a 50 percent reduction of the achievement gap.

The findings led the professors to conclude, “frequent consequential quizzing should be used routinely in large lecture courses to improve performance in class and in other concurrent and subsequent courses.”

Concerns regarding low-income students at elite universities extend far beyond Austin, Texas.

According to a Nov. 27 Forbes article, low-income students face tremendous difficulties on elite college campuses, even in cases where students are receiving generous financial aid packages. Worries ranging from not being able to afford transportation costs for interviews to being unable to spare the cash for campus performances are discussed by students from Harvard, Duke and Brown. In the article, Beth Breger, executive director for the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), argues that college campuses are set up for upper/middle class students. Tasks that low-income students may not have experience with, such as asking for a recommendation letter or getting academic support from a TA, are frequently expected of students upon arrival on campus.

Discussion of class has taken place on Yale’s campus as well. Following a series of columns in the News about financial aid and class last spring, the Freshman Scholars at Yale (FSY) program was created. Although the program is still in a pilot stage, FSY allowed 30 incoming freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds to spend five weeks on Yale’s campus over the summer taking a writing course for no cost. The program has received mainly positive feedback thus far. President Salovey also encouraged the Class of 2017 to talk about socioeconomic status, calling the topic “one of the last taboos among Yale students.”

Talking, while an important first step, is far from enough. In the Yale Daily News Magazine article “We Don’t Talk About It,” a low-income student from Detroit asked, “What is talk, if you’re not going to act upon it?” That sentiment ought to be spread far and wide.

Studies like the one out of UT-Austin show that there are concrete steps that can be taken to level the playing field at a relatively low cost. Some Yale courses already do administer quizzes in every class session, particularly introductory language courses. Naturally, the policy forces all students to keep up with the material instead of falling behind. Large introductory courses at Yale in psychology, economics and other subjects should begin implementing similar brief online quizzes.

Sure, the UT-Austin study is a preliminary study and obviously could not control for all outside factors. But it showed a remarkable closure in the achievement gap for low-income students. If Yale wants to provide quality education for all its students, it must focus on tangible social science research that has been proven effective elsewhere.

Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her columns run on Wednesdays. Contact her at diana.rosen@yale.edu.

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