Taking the Cosmic Hint: Stereotype Threat

Jun 02 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

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Over the past couple of weeks, three items dealing with stereotype threat have landed in my lap. Who am I to ignore such an alignment of the stars when I have blog space to fill?

So what is stereotype threat?

Why should we care?

And what can we do about it?


From the website Reducing Stereotype Threat:

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.

In other words, reminding people of stereotypes before an activity may influence their performance toward the stereotype. The Glass Hammer for June 1, 2011, presents a compelling study of how this phenomenon may keep girls out of math and science:

High school students taking the AP Calculus test are generally asked their gender before taking the test. In a field study performed by ETS (Educational Testing Services, the company that designs aptitude tests like the GRE and Praxis), a sample group of girls and boys was asked to indicate their gender after completing it.

Females who received the gender inquiry before the test scored an average AP Formula Score of 12.5, while males scored an average of 16.5. In the groups that received the gender inquiry after the test, females scored an average of 15, while males scored an average of 14. Not only did stereotype threat significantly harm girls’ scores, but boys benefited from being reminded of their gender before taking the test. Aronson said that ETS declined to change the system, even in light of the results of the study.

Before I forget, I have a message for the ETS: Quit being misogynist, racist asshats and collect your demographic data after the damn exam. You collected the evidence; USE IT!!!!!

OK, I feel better now that my rant is over.

Subtle social conditioning about gender and other factors can also alter interests and career choices:

If girls consistently believe they are scoring poorly in math and science because they are biologically not cut out for it, they are less likely to pursue those fields of study at any level. The same goes for Black and Latino children as well. And that’s why its important to change the way we talk about test taking and performance.

The saddest part of this whole discussion is that many simple techniques are already recognized to reduce stereotype threat, such as collecting data on race and gender after the exam rather than before (Are you paying attention yet, ETS?):

The links above take you to Reducing Stereotype Threat which discusses each in detail, with references. There are some criticisms of stereotype threat, as well as some unresolved issues that require further research.

Stereotype threat affects all of us; even white males may be negatively impacted in some venues. Its effects can be minimized with some fairly low-tech, inexpensive techniques. I am glad this showed up in my reading this week; it needs to be on everybody's radar.

2 responses so far

  • Sarah says:

    This is pretty alarming. Especially that ETS isn't changing its methods. Questions about gender and race should be removed from standardized tests, as they're not relevant to the tests themselves.

    • WhizBANG says:

      Or they could collect that data at registration for the exam, rather than on the day of the exam. That way the data could be linked, but the stereotype would not be reinforced proximate to the exam.

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