Claude Steele,”Stereotype Threat,” And Racial Preference

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 (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.

Say What? (9)

  1. KC March 24, 2003 at 12:10 pm | | Reply

    Women! For years women were told they couldnt’ do something or other due to their small brains or internal organs or soem such nonsense. Did it stop us? Not too much, I’d say.

    But much of the negativity black students hear is from their own families and friends.

  2. Random Observations March 24, 2003 at 3:50 pm | | Reply

    Expecting Less

    Joanne Jacobs comments on research by Claude Steele which finds that peoples’ tested intelligence can be raised or lowered by

  3. Old School Republicans March 29, 2003 at 3:39 am | | Reply

    Prescriptions of Stereotype Threat

    Claude Steele has always been my favorite of the famous brothers. But nothing quite prepared me for his research into ‘Stereotype Threat’. When capable black college students fail to perform as well as their white counterparts, the explanation often ha…

  4. Garrett April 29, 2003 at 10:02 am | | Reply

    Uh, KC, actually Steele’s results are more robust then just for racial minorities. Similar results obtain on math testing for women, tapping into the widely shared stereotype of female inferiority at math, even among men and women with identical math SAT scores. If the group a test is told it measures “ability in math,” women do worse, but if it’s just a practice test, they don’t do as badly. And I think I remember a similar result for whites versus asians in math (whites do worse when the stereotype is activated), though I need to locate the experiment.

  5. yvette cardero October 18, 2003 at 12:28 pm | | Reply

    Have you been now or were you ever a member of any of these groups? Are you privileged in some way that makes you immune/blind to the facts of societal forces that shape interactions? What are your credentials because as I try to ascertain the perspective, education and rationale for you even engaging in this discussion. Your knowledge seems elementary and your critique lacks substance and grounding in the research literature. You only requote the author and do not examine his findings in any sort of depth. Do some homework and get back to us with a scholarly “critique.” What needs to be examined in the degree of stress these groups of people undergo everyday just living in a society that deems other inferior. Its convenient isn’t it to blame the recipient of racism for not being able to overcome the negativism leveled at these folks daily, covertly, blindly in ‘normal’ settings. Let’s see some critique of the evidence not suppositions that border on a diatribe.

  6. Glenda F. Hunt December 1, 2003 at 7:07 pm | | Reply

    I scored 1230 on the SATs in 1972 (610 in Math, 620 on verbal), that was without badly need eyeglasses that I learned I needed during first semester physics at Columbia, and despite the fact that I worked for an optometrist during high school, which optometrist bothered to comment that my IQ was nearly 130 but who never bothered to suggest that I enter a payment plan with him for eyeglasses (after numerous eye tests); I was too busy spending the money he paid me on lunch and other school supplies to think about getting glasses. I never graduated from Barnard, after switching majors from physics to geology, despite doing well in what was then called “modern physics”. The counseler at Columbia was too concerned that I make good grade in order to find a husband. I am not lying! Also, a black graduate student who served as a tutor and mentor did not help matters much by complaining about how difficult it was to get tenure… I have maintained my love of physics over the years despite not having any chance of ever having a career in it. The fact that my single-parent mother expected me to get a job making lots of money didn’t help much either. Finally, what was most important at the time was my evolving social conscience at the time: What did physicists do for society? What did the professors expect of me as a person and as a physicist — besides wasting my time asking me overly basic questions about math and physics when I went to the tutors for help — by the time they figured out I wasn’t a total idiot, the tutoring sessions were over. It also didn’t help that during high school, my biggest cheerleaders were two Spanish instructors who were trying to get me to major in Spanish whileignoring my second place win in the county science fair for a project on renegade asteriods (Eros); and my math teacher who was more concerned about the fact that there was no one “good enough” for me to date, as opposed to say, what I was going to major in in college. Never mind my physics teacher: while he wasn’t busy laughing at us “girls” trying to build a radio, he was busy laughing at the Georgia county that had no black residents, which we once drove through on a class trip. Get my drift? Finally, the beginning of my pursuit of a math/science track at the age of 12 and later was never due to any encouragement from any teachers — silly me as a 12-year old “colored” girl — I figured that knowing science and math were something to do if one wanted to know how the “real” world worked as opposed to the world explained by prejudice and superstition… Silly me, I still think that way….

  7. R. Mullen May 27, 2004 at 2:52 pm | | Reply

    You misinterpret what Steele is saying, I think. Lowering the test scores for minority students does not mean that the students are less capable. Just the opposite: what it does is take into account the built-in weakness of the TEST as a measure of competence. Everyone comes to the test with baggage, but some baggage artificially lowers test scores.

    I have taught in public schools, I’ve practiced law and I’ve done the same overseas. We don’t need to make every child the same, rather we should recognize that each child has her brilliance, each child has the capacity to excel. We want to do the best for all children, we must try to make the educational system not color-blind (you would not trust someone to drive with his eyes shut, –why would you engage in social engineering with your eyes shut?!), but as color-supportive for non-whites as it is for whites.

    Claude Steele presents a cogent argument for the type of affirmative action that will realize Sandra O’Connor’s vision of basic social equality within our lifetime. Of course, it must start with making the educational system work for everyone. A nurturing environment for all will naturally enhance the experience for white students as well, so the panic many feel will fade as they realize that they are part of the chain, not holding it. It will lift the burden of being white, as it lifts the burdens carried by others at the same time.

    Prof. Steele seems to advance the given that black students have been actively and passively discouraged throughout the educational experience since well before Brown v. Board. This social construct exists still, –it never went dormant.

    That is why minorities deserve a different scale to represent the SAME competence. It is not lesser competence, it is the same competence. Until such time as the educational analysts incorporate more than a eurocentric frame of reference and learn to test human competence not (or, honorary white) privilege, this is a reasonable short-term solution.

    As someone who consistently scored at the TOP of my class at a small private school full of wealthy whites, blew away the AP’s and national tests, I also experienced teachers who made it clear that they saw my abilities as a problem. No child should have to put up with that from people who make their living teaching them.

    The idea of score equalization is not that black students are less capable,–that interpretation is the refuge of those who are threatened by emotional analysis. Instead of assuming that score equalization rewards inferiority, you might do better to ask, who is feeling threatened by score equalization. In truth, it is no different that assigning lanes in a swim or track meet.

    It’s not the wealthy, legacy children and their parents: it’s the middle-class white student who relies tacitly on what Prof. Steele calls the “upside” of negative stereotyping. Losing that is a huge loss, which explains a great deal of the resistance to any solution that deviates from simplistic solutions based on race.

  8. Gene Expression August 22, 2004 at 2:42 pm | | Reply

    Stereotype Threat

    You may have already seen Sailer’s article on stereotype threat, but here is the full set of PDFs documenting the brutal takedown of Steele & Aronson’s widely mischaracterized findings by Sackett, Hardison, and Cullen. In short, Steele and Aronson’s st…

  9. Frederic Christie May 16, 2005 at 7:23 pm | | Reply

    Come on, this is fairly simple. If stereotype threat implicates test scores such as the SAT (and it is only one of many ways that even upper-class black students are blocked from success not by any fault of their own but by institutional racism), then accounting for that is acceptable. I just cannot understand the objection the right raises to the Supreme Court-style proposal. Even Tim Wise says that quotas and point systems are more about laziness than combatting racism, and anyone serious can recognize that IF racism changes material possibilities, then that should be taken into account in college admissions. Northwestern (not exactly a controversial establishment) holistically evaluates their students; for example, they take into account how many AP classes are offered at the school and adjust the way they look at the GPA accordingly.

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