Home > COMMUNITY COMMUNICATION > An ‘Obama Effect’ on Blacks’ Test Scores?

An ‘Obama Effect’ on Blacks’ Test Scores?

Sharon Begley
On only the fourth day of his presidency, it’s obviously way too soon to assess whether Barack Obama’s effect on African-Americans will extend beyond providing hope and inspiration. Will he, for instance, goad black students to higher achievement, since he is living proof that working hard can pay off? One intriguing hint of what researchers led by Ray Friedman of the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management calls the “Obama Effect” suggests that maybe, just maybe, Obama will do more for the scholastic achievement of African-Americans than anything since Brown v. Board of Education.

In a paper under review at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Friedman and colleagues present findings suggesting that Obama might close the black-white gap in scores on standardized tests. That gap reflects, in part, what psychologists call “stereotype threat”. In this now well-established phenomenon, being reminded that you belong to a group that, according to prevailing stereotypes, isn’t good at something causes you to do worse on a test of that something than if you were not so reminded. Similarly, if you are told that you are being assessed on something that stereotypes say your group is not good at (“girls can’t do math”) you do worse than it you’re told the test does not (in this example) detect gender differences. It’s easier to explain by example. When girls who are about to take a math test are reminded of their sex  (basically they just check M or F on a line asking their gender), or when African-Americans about to take a standardized test such as the SAT are reminded of their race, or even when white males take a test that they’re told Asians excel on, they do worse than otherwise. Apparently, students become so anxious about confirming the stereotype that their brains stumble. As the researchers write, “concern about confirming entrenched negative racial stereotypes via poor performance . . . ironically leads to their underperformance on challenging exams.”

So here’s what the new study did. At four different times during 2008 (late August, before the Democratic nominating convention; just after Obama’s acceptance speech; in early October; and right after election day), it asked about 120 college students to take an online test consisting of 20 questions from the Graduate Record Exams (GREs). (Over the four testing periods, 84 black students and 388 white students, matched for education levels, participated.) They were told that the exam was “created by the Massachusetts Aptitude Assessment Center, and is used as a diagnostic tool to assess verbal problem-solving ability”—a ruse meant to activate the stereotype that blacks don’t do as well as whites on aptitude tests. They also had to indicate their race before taking the exam, also known to activate stereotype threat.

  1. JJ Shag
    January 26, 2009 at 1:06 am

    So what were the results??

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