This is a bit old, but I don't think it's ever been posted.
The Threat in the Air
Is fear of "stereotypes" really why blacks do poorly on tests?
BY AMY L. WAX
Sunday, April 18, 2004 12:01 a.m.
People do badly on tests for different reasons. Some do badly because they're anxious or fear failure, others because they don't know how to answer the questions. How important are these factors? When it comes to the long-observed patterns of black-white differences on a range of academic measures, social science purports to know the answer. Journals and textbooks of psychology will tell you that the principal cause of black students' poor performance on tests is something called "stereotype threat." Black test-takers fall short because they're afraid that the results will be used to confirm negative views about their group's abilities. It follows that if some way can be found to dispel this "threat," group differences in scores will disappear.
Yet the belief that stereotype threat is the sole or even the chief cause of the differences is without foundation. In the main study in this area, done by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in 1995, black and white Stanford undergraduates were given a difficult test of verbal ability. The students of both races were divided into two groups. Half of both black and white students were told the test would be used to assess their groups' intellectual ability--the "stereotype threat condition." The black students who were tested under threat did worse than the black students who were not told this. White students performed the same, whether or not they were threatened.
The key to this study, and to its misuse, can be found in how the results were reported. The average incoming verbal SAT scores of the black Stanford students lagged about 40 points behind the white students in the experiment. In order to control for those academic disparities, the authors adjusted scores on the experimental tests to account for any background SAT score differences. Since the adjustment allowed them to compare students as if they were equally qualified, it's no surprise that black and white students were reported as achieving the same scores when the stereotype threat was removed.
But they did not in fact achieve the same scores. As noted by University of Minnesota psychologist Paul Sackett and his colleagues in the January issue of American Psychologist, the raw, unadjusted scores of African-American and white students in the Steele/Aronson paper actually "differed to about the degree that would be expected on the basis of differences in prior SAT scores." Although stereotype threat warnings widened the gap between black and white student scores somewhat, purging the threat did not close or even narrow the actual gap in scores on the experimental test.
The few subsequent studies by the original authors or other researchers either report similar modest findings, or show no racial stereotype threat effect at all. For example, a 2002 paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that stereotype threat had no statistically significant effect on blacks' performance on a commonly used nonverbal test of cognitive ability. A 2003 paper in the journal Human Performance found no effect on undergraduates' performance on a job selection test. Finally, economics Nobel laureate James Heckman and his colleagues have noted that significant racial gaps in cognitive performance show up in preschool children, before low teacher expectations and fears about stereotyping would come into play.
Although the studies to date suggest that stereotype threat may sometimes depress minorities' academic performance, they do not show that stereotype threat is responsible for most--let alone all--of the test-score gap. They also provide no clue on a key question: In accounting for the gap, how important is stereotype threat relative to differences in students' true skill, knowledge and problem-solving ability? Messrs. Steele and Aronson could have designed their study to get at this question, at least for their Stanford subjects, by reporting raw scores on the experimental verbal test without adjusting for prior SATs. This would have shown a significant baseline gap between black and white students in the non-stereotype-threat condition and a modest increase in that gap (due to somewhat lower scores by blacks) under stereotype threat. Adjusting for prior SAT scores--which makes it look as if stereotype threat were the only cause of any performance differences between black and white students--adds no useful information.
It is also raises the question of whether stereotype threat has any effect on standardized test scores in the real world. For their decision to control for background SAT scores to make sense, Messrs. Steele and Aronson must assume the SAT is a baseline measure of "true" ability. Indeed, they state that "it is unlikely that stereotype threat had much differential effect on the SATs of our black and white participants." But then what about the almost 200-point difference between the SAT scores of blacks and whites in the population overall? Does stereotype threat affect those SAT scores or not? If not, how can stereotype threat explain SAT score gaps? The authors can't have it both ways.
Lack of evidence and grave methodological defects haven't prevented the stereotype threat industry from taking off. Distortions are now pervasive. According to a survey by Mr. Sackett and his colleagues, 10 of 11 references to the threat in scientific journals, more than half the descriptions in psychology textbooks and 14 of 16 discussions in the media incorrectly state that racial differences in academic performance disappear when stereotype threat is eliminated. In this vein, a recent New York Times article on stereotype threat and the racial test-score gap declared that "performance is psychological." A "Frontline" special falsely stated that blacks who believe that a standardized test was merely a research tool, rather than a gauge of their abilities, performed just as well as whites.
Why the hyperbole? The belief that group performance differences can be laid at the door of stereotype threat is a grand exercise in wishful thinking that reveals a lot about the Zeitgeist. It fits with everything people desperately want to believe about standardized tests, learning and group differences in achievement.
The first item of faith is that any assessment that reveals group differences must be biased, inaccurate and invalid. If scores can be lifted merely by adjusting attitudes or test conditions, then poor scores don't reflect real deficiencies in knowledge and ability, and tests aren't an accurate measure of academic skill.
The second notion is that groups don't really differ in academic proficiency or learning. Stereotype threat is a temporary brain freeze that covers up what students really know. If performance across groups can be equalized just by dispelling the test-takers' fear of being judged, then current disparities reflect no real group differences in learning or skill.
Third, stereotype threat promises a quick fix for low achievement. We resist the idea that high test scores reflect dedicated study and good learning habits, that learning builds on itself over time, and that there may come a point when past deficits can't be made up. We want to believe that anyone can always catch up and that latent potential can be instantly unleashed if only the right formula is found.
Finally, we resist confronting the social and behavioral causes of shortfalls in academic performance. Stark differences between groups in marriage rates, family stability, paternal involvement, parenting practices and discipline, and other habits and values, are associated with children's disparate academic success. Changing these requires sustained self-scrutiny and reform from within. We'd rather believe that underachievement comes from without. If only white society would stop stereotyping minority students as inferior, or expecting them to perform poorly, stereotype threat would abate and all would be well.
But there's no reason to think that it would disappear, even if the "threat in the air" could be banished forever. The evidence fails to demonstrate that the problem is a momentary artifact of emotions rather than the result of abilities undeveloped and learning forgone. Until skill differences are addressed, the problem won't go away. There is no magic cure for the race gap.
Does this mean that stereotype threat plays no role? Not necessarily. Fear of fulfilling negative expectations may be one factor that leads black students to exert less effort over the long haul. But that account is different from seeing stereotype threat as a momentary mental block that can be removed to reveal the true ability beneath. If the threat actually impedes learning over the long-term, the consequences for future performance are still dire. The surgeon who can't see, can't operate, regardless of how he got that way. People who don't know how to read and do math can't function and lead in a demanding, technological society, regardless of the cause of those shortcomings.
The insight that anxiety about stereotypes may influence minority students' real learning is not without implications. It suggests that encouragement and reassurance are a vital part of education. But in urging students to prove their detractors wrong, one key message should never get lost: What matters most in the end is what you know.
Ms. Wax is a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110004973