Editorial: No fare makes science fair fair

This May marks the 64th California State Science Fair, which should invite thoughts of progress and scientific creativity. On the other hand, one may also focus on the gap present between those who have access to professional equipment and the wealth to back it up, and those who do not.

For example, this year, all four OC Intel ISEF finalists had projects that required lab access or access to complex methods, such as prosthetic arms and computer simulations, limiting the competition.

In a larger sense, those who possess wealth or the privileges of access to academic professionals dominate the world of academics, whereas those who do not possess these advantages are often left behind – both academically and financially.

Science fairs are one of the easiest places to see this economic gap, with lab-based projects having a more imposing presence than other projects. The biggest problem between lab and non-lab projects is the lack of equality;all students do not have the same access to lab facilities or advanced equipment.

In 2009, a study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair by John Lawrence Bencze and Gervase Michael Bowen found that participants from 2002-2008 were more likely to come from upper or upper-middle class families, have professionally printed and designed posters and displays and have parents or family friends who were scientists or engineers.

These results show that the process of science fair is intrinsically broken, in that competition leads to money and social connections dominating.

To remedy this problem, Peter Rillero, an Arizona State University professor, has described using a “standards-based” system instead, which would focus on students competing against standards such as quality of research and student innovation, and winning requiring meeting a benchmark score, instead of merely having more professional projects.

Standardized testing is even more notorious for placing an economic gap between students, especially with the widespread use of tutoring centers, such as Elite Test Prep in Irvine and other locations.

Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist, compared standardized test scores between 1960 and 2007 and found that the achievement gap between people from the highest income ranking and lowest income ranking had grown by 40 percent in the time period.

College Board has planned to make the SAT more comprehensive and based in real-world challenges by 2016, but these changes only affect the test, not the system of tutors and learning centers that surround it.

Khan Academy has also started offering free SAT tutoring, but the value of having an actual teacher present may have more positive benefit to a student, especially in terms of specific questions and additional help that online videos may not be able to account for.

Any proposed solution to the standardized testing issue will need to take into account studying for lower-income test takers as well as equalizing tutoring and learning centers for all.

Both science fairs and standardized testing share a preference for more well-connected and wealthier students, which is representative of California’s education system as a whole. We believe that implementation of a change in the education system will ensure more equality in access of education and in academic competitions as a whole.