Stereotypes Lower Test Scores

University Testing

New research by a Stanford University professor demolishes claims by testmakers that racial and gender differences in standardized test performance can be explained fully by differences in academic prowess and preparation. Claude Steele, a professor of social psychology and president-elect of the Western Psychological Association, reports that his seven-year study shows that minority and female students who are aware of racial and gender stereotypes about intellectual ability will score lower on those standardized tests that purport to measure academic aptitude. The study defines this extra burden borne by some test-takers as stereotype vulnerability.


Consider the black student who gives the wrong answer or falters grammatically in class, explains Steele. He is vulnerable to the judgment, as is anyone, that he lacks a particular skill. But he is also vulnerable to the deeper devaluation contained in the stereotype that he has confirmed. Likewise for women in math and sciences.


In more than a dozen experiments over the past four years, Steele and his colleagues were able to depress the performance of high-achieving African American men and women of all races by subtly implying that well-known stereotypes about those groups intellectual abilities might apply to the test they were about to take. The cues were often indirect. Students were told that the test they were about to take can measure ability or they were asked to mark down their races before the test began. In control groups where similar students were given no reason to suspect that the demeaning stereotypes would apply to their performance, African Americans performed as well as whites on very challenging tests.


Even students who do not consciously embrace the stereotypes experience vulnerability. Steele found that minority students often redouble their efforts during a test in order to disprove stereotypes but then end up working too quickly or inefficiently. He explained that performing in domains where prevailing stereotypes indicate that one may be part of an inferior group carries the risk that any faltering of performance will confirm the stereotype as a self-characteristic.


This dynamic, Steele added, may lead students from stereotyped groups to alternate between trying to do the scholastic task and thinking about what their performance means. Their performance can be disrupted by interfering anxiety, reticence to respond and distracting thoughts. The stakes will be higher for African American and other minority students because a poor performance on a standardized test has a more devastating meaning for these students.


Steele found that everyone is susceptible to stereotype vulnerability: in one experiment, white males unaccustomed to being intellectually stigmatized were told that Asians achieved higher scores than Americans on a mathematics test they were asked to take. This group achieved lower scores than a control group of white males who were not told anything about previous test results. Steele and a colleague, Steve Spencer at Hope College in Michigan, have also run eight experiments showing that stereotype vulnerability can negatively affect women who believe a given math test shows gender differences. As numerous studies have demonstrated, standardized tests such as the SAT consistently underpredict the performance of women in college. The stereotype vulnerability research suggests that the inherent gender bias of the SAT is made worse by female test-takers awareness of that bias.


Professor Steele noted that his findings undercore the danger of relying too heavily on standardized test results in college admissions or otherwise. The research findings make very clear the danger of all practices including the National Merit Scholarship Seminfinalist selection process and the NCAA s initial athletic eligibility rules that base high stakes decisions on standardized test scores.


For more information, contact Stanford University News Service at (415) 723-2558.