Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post who wrote the article criticized here, today reviews several books on education in the Post’s Book World. He is especially taken with Claude Steele’s work on “stereotype threat.”
Steele, chairman of the psychology dept. at Stanford and brother of black conservative Shelby Steele (of whom he is very critical), over the past decade or so has come up with a novel explanation of why blacks don’t do as well as whites and Asians on standardized tests. As Mathews puts it, his experiments
showed that minority college students did less well academically when they knew their graders were conscious of the racial achievement gap. Steele says this feeling of mistrust and apprehension leads minorities to do less than their best when “being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype….”
Mathews also quotes approvingly the lesson, and policy implication, Steele has drawn from his research.
Citing the results of one experiment, Steele advises teachers to “tell the students that you are using high standards (this signals that the criticism reflects standards rather than race), and that your reading of their essays leads you to believe that they can meet those standards (this signals that you do not view them stereotypically).” He says that “black students who got this kind of feedback saw it as unbiased and were motivated to take their essays home and work on them even though this was not a class for credit. They were more motivated than any other group of students in the study — as if this combination of high standards and assurance was like water on parched land, a much-needed but seldom-received balm.” [JSR, 3/27/16: I suspect Mathews, or Steele, is quoting from Steele here]
In other words, black students need to be told that they are expected to meet high standards, and that they can meet high standards.
Sounds like good advice to me, but it does not seem to me that Steele follows where it leads in the policy arena. “Stereotype threat” means that blacks don’t do well on standardized tests where their graders are aware of racial differences in performance on standardized tests. Thus it would seem to follow that race-blind admissions — where the “graders” did not know the race of the applicants — would be reasonable solution, if “stereotype threat” is the problem.
Steele does not recommend that. Quite the opposite: he actually recommends discounting the test results for blacks, thus re-inforcing the notion (or confirming the stereotype) that they do not do as well. In fact, he submitted expert testimony supporting the University of Michigan’s argument that standards have to be lowered for blacks.
Tony Mauro, writing on law.com (link via Howard Bashman), quotes Margaret Mahoney, author of the University of Michigan Law School’s brief in Grutter [JSR, 3/21/16: This link is now dead, but Mahoney is quoted by Pete Williams of NBC News saying virtually the same thing here]:
“There is literally no chance” that significant numbers of minority applicants would be admitted to the law school “under any race-blind admissions program,” according to the University of Michigan Law School brief, written by Maureen Mahoney, a Washington, D.C., partner at Latham & Watkins. Mahoney will argue Grutter for the school.
Ending affirmative action, she adds, would “force most of this nation’s finest institutions to choose between dramatic resegregation and completely abandoning the demanding standards that have made American higher education the envy of the world.”
You would think that the discoverer of “stereotype threat” would react with anger to this bald assertion that blacks are incapable of meeting the same high standards that whites and Asians are expected to meet, that diversity requires lowering standards for blacks but that lowering them similarly for all applicants would destroy excellence in education. Steele, however, defends enshrining this double standard into law.
From his expert testimony:
Standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, the ACT, and the LSAT are of limited value in evaluating “merit” or determining admissions qualifications of all students, but particularly for African American, Hispanic, and American Indian applicants for whom systematic influences make these tests even less diagnostic of their scholastic potential….
[T]he caution with respect to standardized tests–that use of these tests with minority applicants is especially unreliable–is based on longstanding research, including work done in my own laboratory over the past 10 years, showing that experiences tied to one’s racial and ethnic identity can artificially depress standardized test performance. Importantly, these effects go beyond any effects of socioeconomic disadvantage, affecting even the best prepared, most invested students from these groups who often come from middle-class backgrounds. Relying on these tests too extensively in the admissions process will preempt the admission of a significant portion of highly qualified minority students….
My research, and that of my colleagues, has isolated a factor that can depress the standardized test performance of minority students–a factor we call stereotype threat. This refers to the experience of being in a situation where one recognizes that a negative stereotype about one’s group is applicable to oneself. When this happens, one knows that one could be judged or treated in terms of that stereotype, or that one could inadvertently do something that would confirm it. In situations where one cares very much about one’s performance or related outcomes–as in the case of serious students taking the SAT–this threat of being negatively stereotyped can be upsetting and distracting. Our research confirms that when this threat occurs in the midst of taking a high stakes standardized test, it directly interferes with performance.
In matters of race we often assume that once a situation is objectively the same for different groups, that it is experienced the same by each group. This assumption might seem especially reasonable in the case of “standardized” cognitive tests. But for Black students, unlike White students, the experience of difficulty on the test makes the negative stereotype about their group relevant as an interpretation of their performance, and of them. Thus they know as they meet frustration that they are especially likely to be seen through the lens of the stereotype as having limited ability. For those Black students who care very much about performing well, this is an extra intimidation not experienced by groups not stereotyped in this way. And it is a serious intimidation, implying, as it does, that they may not belong in walks of life where the tested abilities are important, walks of life in which they are heavily invested. Like many pressures, it may not be fully conscious, but it may be enough to impair their best thinking.
Unless I’m missing something (Kimberly Swygert of Number 2 Pencil, where are you?), Steele is arguing that the stereotype that blacks don’t do well on standardized tests causes blacks not to do well on standardized tests and thus that standardized tests should not be used, or at least that the scores of black students on them should not be regarded as reliably measuring anything worthwhile.
Do any other groups besides blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans — hillbillies, crackers, rednecks come to mind (and I use those terms positively, not negatively) suffer from “stereotype threat”? If so, shouldn’t they get a break, too? What of Asians? Do they have a “stereotype boost”? (They are expected to do well on tests, so they do.) If so, should they be penalized?
Oops, I almost forgot. They are penalized.