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President's Message

Stereotype Threat Management

By Rhonda J. Armistead, NCSP

Ever wonder what runs through the mind of a seventh-grade student sitting down to take a state's "must pass" achievement test? Or what a child is thinking about a task you've placed in front of her as you begin to administer an intelligence test? Student perceptions of tests and the way those perceptions can influence performance are seldom considered in our interpretations of the results. Yet, research findings by social psychologists suggest that the way tests are introduced can have a powerful impact on student perceptions and on their performance. The problem is called stereotype threat and I find it interesting because of the many ways it relates to our professional interests. Apparently, it can influence performance on standardized tests of all kinds and has been identified as a factor in achievement test score "gaps." Being aware of stereotype threat should be part of our cultural competence.

Stereotype threat was first described by Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele and a colleague Joshua Aronson in 1995. Their early studies established that Black college students performed differently on standardized tests depending upon how the tests were framed and whether stereotypes about race were invoked. For example, Black students performed more poorly when they were told that a challenging verbal test measured their underlying intellectual ability. For White students, this information about the tests made no difference in their scores. Steele and Aronson explained the results in terms of stereotype threat—that is, feeling at risk of confirming, as a selfcharacteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group. This concern about personally providing evidence for a prevalent stereotype about black students resulted in lower test scores (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Since then, over 200 studies have confirmed the phenomenon as being applicable to virtually everyone since each of us belongs to at least one group that is characterized by stereotypes. For example, stereotype threat has been shown with diverse groups including African American, Hispanic, and low- SES students on measures of academic performance; girls taking math tests; gay men providing childcare; elderly adults performing memory tasks; and White men assessed on their athletic ability. It has become clear that stereotype threat can affect performance on many different tasks and can affect members of many groups when there is a perception that underperformance could confirm stereotypical expectations. Even students as young as 6 years of age are aware of cultural stereotypes and their sensitivity increases dramatically between ages 6 and 11.

Stereotype threat pervades American life and should be a factor in understanding and achieving educational equity within a diverse community. In a recent lecture at Mt Holyoke College, Steele said, "I've come to believe that human intellectual performance is far more fragile than we customarily think; it can rise and fall depending on the social context. As research is showing, conditions that threaten basic motives—such as our sense of competence, our feelings of belonging, and our trust in people around us—can dramatically influence our intellectual capacities and motivation. And stereotype threat appears to threaten all these things at once."

So, how do we reduce the effects of stereotype threat in schools? The research findings are preliminary but suggest several strategies:

  • Reframing tasks or modifying task descriptions so that stereotypes are not invoked can be helpful. Describing a test as "showing how you learn best" might be less threatening than "an aptitude measure."
  • Deemphasizing group membership is important. Some studies have shown that asking for demographic information after a test has been completed is less likely to sensitize students to the relevance of ethnicity to the situation.
  • Explicitly teaching students about stereotype threat is a third strategy. In doing so, stereotype threat can be "externalized" as a culprit and understood as something to be disarmed and coped with. Self-affirmations can be helpful in this regard.
  • Teaching a "growth" model of intelligence to students also lessens the influence of stereotype threat. As discussed in a previous President's Message, Carol Sweck's ideas about intelligence as a "muscle" that can be strengthened could be a powerful antidote to the idea that one's group membership determines one's destiny.

I encourage you to learn more about stereotype threat and keep up to date with new research findings. Abstracts of hundreds of published studies are available at www.reducingstereotypethreat.org. The site organizes the topic by describing the mechanisms behind stereotype threat, the situations that lead to the threat, who is most vulnerable, the consequences, the ways to reduce stereotype threat, and unresolved issues. I've bookmarked this website for additional study myself. Helping students resist the insidious influence of stereotype threat on their school performance is just another aspect of improving their resilience.