NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Stereotype Threat Harms Black Students' Test Performance

October 7, 1999

Researchers have a new explanation for the persistent test score gap that exists between minority and white students -- in particular, for the test and performance gap between well-prepared, middle-class black college students and comparable white students.

  • In 1990, the SAT scores of black students whose parents' income was above $70,000 were, on average, 150 points lower than comparable white students.
  • The gap increased in 1995 to about 200 points when comparing students who had at least one parent with a graduate degree.

Stanford University psychologist Claude Steele theorizes "stereotype threat" is a leading cause of the discrepancy. Stereotype threat is a type of performance anxiety experienced when students realize and are concerned that their performance could prove a general racial stereotype. In the case of SAT scores, low performance on a test of ability could confirm the notion that blacks are not as smart as whites or that affirmative action was the sole reason a black student was admitted to a university.

  • Thus when Steele and his colleagues presented a difficult verbal test to sophomore college students as a test of ability, black students' performance was dramatically lower than white students.
  • However, when the same test was presented as a laboratory task to study how certain problems are generally solved and intellectual ability was not a factor, black students' performance matched that of white students.
  • Also, black students under stereotype threat had much higher blood pressures than white students, which is believed to distort test performance.

To prove that stereotype threat was a factor, students were asked to make a word out of a fragment after the test was administered. For example, _ _ ce was completed as "race" more often by black students who experienced stereotype threat; when the threat was removed, they were less likely to choose "stereotype-related" words.

Source: Claude M. Steele, "Thin Ice; Stereotype Threat and Black College Students," Atlantic Monthly, August 1999


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