Posted on August 23, 2021

Inadequacies in the SES–Achievement Model

Gary N. Marks and Michael O'Connell, BERA, August 15, 2021

Students’ socioeconomic status (SES) is central to much research and policy deliberation on educational inequalities. However, the SES model is under severe stress for several reasons. SES is an ill-defined concept, unlike parental education or family income. SES measures are frequently based on proxy reports from students; these are generally unreliable, sometimes endogenous to student achievement, only low to moderately intercorrelated, and exhibit low comparability across countries and over time. There are many explanations for SES inequalities in education, none of which achieves consensus among research and policy communities. SES has only moderate effects on student achievement, and its effects are especially weak when considering prior achievement, an important and relevant predictor. SES effects are substantially reduced when considering parent ability, which is causally prior to family SES. The alternative cognitive ability/genetic transmission model has far greater explanatory power; it provides logical and compelling explanations for a wide range of empirical findings from student achievement studies. The inadequacies of the SES model are hindering knowledge accumulation about student performance and the development of successful policies.