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Jewish World Review March 19, 2001 / 24 Adar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Blacks and the SATs -- - I winced when President Richard C. Atkinson of the University of California recently proposed ending the use of the SAT in admissions.

I appreciate Atkinson's desire to improve his student body's racial and ethnic diversity. Even so, I am an African-American who believes blacks can compete on any playing field, once we put our minds to it. Therefore, I am not comfortable with the idea that the best way to deal with minority underperformance on standardized tests is to simply get rid of the test.

I would rather ask (1) why does the gap in test scores exist? and (2) what needs to be done about it?

These are important questions, yet we have only begun to explore them intelligently. It used to be viewed as thoroughly impolite, at best, to even discuss the black-white test score gap in proper academic circles. Then the issue was forced out of the closet in the early 1990s by the book "The Bell Curve."

The controversial best-seller by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein implied that blacks may be born with less "cognitive intelligence" than whites. Black liberals and conservatives alike bristled at that notion, but the book opened up a national debate joined most recently by John H. McWhorter, a black linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

In McWhorter's new book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," he notes that black test scores fall below whites at all income levels and argues that self-defeating attitudes and a "cult of anti-intellectualism" are the reasons.

But examined more closely, the bad news is not quite that bad. For one thing, black students have better skills than that gap suggests. Many score quite well on the test, but, unfortunately, the proportion of blacks who have very high SAT scores is smaller than the corresponding proportions of high-scoring whites and Asians. So when each group's scores are averaged, the black average comes out lower.

Still, why don't we have more high-scoring blacks, even in the higher income brackets? One big reason may be that blacks feel extra pressures brought on by the widely held expectation that they are not going to do well.

In experiments about this "stereotype threat" conducted since the late 1980s, Claude M. Steele, chair of Stanford's psychology department, has found that the chance that black students might perform poorly and therefore confirm negative stereotypes about black underachievement may, in itself, depress black scores by as much as 15 percent.

When groups of black and white undergraduates were told before taking an aptitude test that its purpose was not to measure intelligence but only to research some psychological factors, Steele found, blacks scored as well as whites. Only when they were told that the test was "a genuine test of your verbal abilities and limitations" did black scores drop while white scores stayed the same in both.

But whites are not immune to the stereotype threat, either. When told that Asians did particularly well on a math test, white male students at Stanford and the University of Texas did less well on the test than a control group of white males did.

Steele also found similar negative effects on women when told that a given math test shows "gender differences."

"Stereotype threat does not occur during a test until people experience frustration," Steele explained in a telephone interview. "The so-called 'hard' parts of the test amplify frustration, build stress and the stereotype threat multiplies the possibility that you will get the wrong answer."

So, no, your self-image does not explain everything about your performance, but it does not take a doctorate in psychology to figure out that the way you see yourself - and how you think others see you - can begin to explain a lot. Before you know it, self-defeating attitudes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The antidote to this malady is to help black students, among others, gain a better, healthier understanding of what's going on in their own heads and in the perceptions others have of them.

Steele has found that black students who have an opportunity to discuss their college lives with their fellow white students in informal rap sessions show reduced feelings of stereotype threat and their grades also improve.

The simple act of hearing the struggles that white and Asian students have with their studies helps make those concerns seem less racial, more universal. Racial and gender stereotypes are less of a threat when they are found to be less widely held than many students think they are.

Students need to hear that. Exams are hard enough without the extra burden of trying to hold up the image of an entire race - or gender.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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