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A Quick Look at Standardized Testing and Stereotype Threat

A Quick Look at Standardized Testing and Stereotype Threat

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“Stereotype threat” is a very complex and nuanced concept. In simple terms, it is an unconscious response to a prevailing negative stereotype about an identifiable group by a member of that group. For example: the statistical fact that African American students generally score lower than White students on standardized college entrance examinations like the SAT, ACT and LSAT gives rise to overly-generalized negative stereotypes about the collective cognitive ability of all African Americans when compared to all Whites. An African American student who is aware of this stereotype understands—consciously or unconsciously—that it can have negative consequences on judgments made not only about the student but on judgments made about all African Americans and that these judgments can limit opportunity. So, when confronted with a standardized college entrance examination (typically and incorrectly perceived as a test of cognitive ability, i.e., “intelligence”), the student believes that poor performance on the exam will reinforce the negative stereotype and create negative consequences for all African Americans. In a classic stereotype threat scenario, this fear creates such a high level of stress and anxiety that a student’s cognitive function may be impaired while taking the test and the student may perform below his or her actual ability. Stereotype threat should not be confused with non-racialized and more generalized “test anxiety” experienced by many test takers.

The SAT, ACT and similar examinations do not measure intelligence. Most of us know someone who we consider to be highly intelligent who does not perform well on these kinds of standardized tests. When the SAT was developed around 1926, it was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. At that time, “aptitude” was a code word for intelligence. “When these tests were originally developed, people really believed that if they did the job right they would be able to measure this sort of underlying, biological potential. Often it was called aptitude; sometimes they called it genes, sometimes intelligence.” Today, the College Board insists that the SAT does not measure innate ability. What it does measure, they say, is “developed reasoning,” described as the skills that students develop not only in school but also outside of school. The College Board says that the SAT measures literacy and writing skills that are needed for academic success in college. They state that the SAT assesses how well the test takers analyze and solve problems—skills they learned in school that they will need in college. Researchers Nathan R. Kuncel and Sarah A. Hezlett suggest that “…test scores reflect developed abilities and are a function of innate talent, learned knowledge and skills, and environmental factors that influence knowledge and skill acquisition, such as prior educational opportunities.”