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Research results challenge 'Bell Curve' analysis, present new information in the debate over affirmative action

STANFORD -- Standardized tests do not accurately measure intellectual merit because racial and gender stereotypes known to the test-takers interfere with intellectual functioning, according to research findings presented by Stanford University psychology Professor Claude Steele on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in New York City.

The research bears on three currently controversial issues:

  • How to interpret racial differences in intelligence test performance (The Bell Curve controversy);
  • The way selective universities and others interpret standardized test scores in implementing affirmative action policies in admissions; and
  • The degree to which racial differences in college performance can be eliminated by appropriately designed schooling.

Steele's seven-year research project explored how situational factors in the test-taking experience itself can depress the academic performance of women and African Americans in college environments. In laboratory testing, and in an experimental field program at the University of Michigan, Steele found that a dynamic that he calls "stereotype vulnerability" is responsible for depressed performance. He also found that the performance gaps between men and women in mathematics and between whites and African Americans - as expressed in test scores, grades, and dropout rates - can be eliminated with appropriately designed affirmative action programs.

"These findings demonstrate another process that may be contributing to racial and gender differences in standardized test performance, a process that is an alternative to the genetic interpretation suggested in The Bell Curve ," Steele said, referring to the controversial 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. "And they show that group differences in school achievement can be reduced substantially by programs that emphasize challenge instead of a 'dumbing down' remediation."

Steele also said the findings "underscore the danger of relying too heavily on standardized test results in college admissions or otherwise. The research shows that societal stereotypes can systematically depress the test performance of some groups more than others, even when those groups enter the test situation with equal knowledge."

His research, conducted in the psychology department at Stanford with Joshua Aronson, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is supported by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the latest entry in a century-long controversy over alleged intelligence differences among groups such as European, African and Asian Americans or women and men. Psychologists periodically argue over whether group differences on standardized tests stem from genetic differences and are thus more difficult to eradicate, or from environmental differences between groups, which are easier to change. Still others argue they merely reflect bias in the tests.

"To this set of explanations, our findings add a new possibility -- that stereotype vulnerability and its differential impact on groups in the immediate testing situation are responsible for a difference in performance," Steele said.

Stereotype vulnerability, the unsettling expectation that one's membership in a stigmatized group will limit individual ability, may be at the root of lower grades and SAT scores for African Americans, Steele said. (The national college dropout rate for African Americans is 70 percent, compared to a 42 percent rate across all groups nationally.) The same dynamic also could explain why highly skilled women at the university level drop out of programs in math, engineering and the physical sciences.

"Everyone knows the stereotypes of the target group, including the group members themselves, and everyone knows that everyone knows," Steele wrote in a paper to be presented at the APA convention. "Thus the vulnerability: The group members then know that anything about them or anything they do that fits the stereotype can be taken as confirming it and its broader implication of a categorical inferiority. This vulnerability amounts to a jeopardy of double devaluation: Once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad thing implied by the stereotype.

"Consider the black student who gives the wrong answer or falters grammatically in class. He is vulnerable to the judgment, as is anyone, that he lacks a particular skill. But he is also vulnerable to the deeper devaluation contained in the stereotype that he has confirmed. Likewise for women in math and sciences."

Experimental evidence

In a number of experiments at Stanford, Steele and his colleagues were able to depress the average performance of high-achieving African American and women college students by subtly implying that well-known stereotypes about those groups' intellectual ability might apply to the test they were about to take.

Circumstances that the researchers set up in the laboratory are common in some classrooms. They included such practices as having students check off their race on a form before taking a test, or having an instructor indicate that a math test that is about to be taken is one that may show gender differences.

But in control groups where similar students were given no reason to suspect that the demeaning stereotypes would apply to their performance, both African Americans and women performed as well as whites and males, respectively, on extremely challenging tests.

In one case, Steele and his colleagues tested to see whether "stereotype vulnerability" also could be induced among white males by indicating to test takers that Asians have tended in the past to do better than Americans on a difficult mathematics exam.

In this experiment, white males, who do not have a lifetime of experience with being stigmatized, performed less well than a control group of white males who were not "placed under suspicion" by the circumstances of the testing. That suggests, Steele said, that stereotype vulnerability is something that can afflict people in general.

"Stereotype vulnerability is something that happens to everybody. Consider stereotypes about yuppies, feminists, or white males. Their existence raises the possibility for potential targets that the stereotype is true of them -- or at least that other people will see them in a certain way. When the stereotype is importantly negative, it can be self-threatening enough to have disruptive effects of its own," Steele said.

"Performing in domains where prevailing stereotypes indicate that one may be part of an inferior group carries the risk that any faltering of performance will confirm the stereotype as a self-characteristic. This dynamic may lead students from stereotyped groups to alternate between trying to do the scholastic task and thinking about what their performance means. Their performance can be disrupted by interfering anxiety, reticence to respond and distracting thoughts," he said. Psychologists have typically thought of test performance gaps for women and minorities as mental or motivational deficiencies, Steele said, rather than as a consequence of the interaction of the individual within a social climate. Such an interaction also could explain why stigmatized minorities in a number of other countries also show about a 15-point IQ gap from the dominant population group.

Every individual in an ability-stigmatized group is not vulnerable every time he or she takes a test, of course. But, Steele said, "across the full range of test-takers in stereotype vulnerable groups, the weight of this vulnerability may substantially depress the group's overall performance, a depression that could account for a significant portion of that group's underperformance in relation to other groups."

Another portion of the gap may be the end result of repeated experience with stereotype vulnerability, he said. Recent research by others, he said, suggests that many individuals within stereotyped groups eventually "dis-identify" with school achievement in general or with a particular subject, reformulating their sense of who they are in order to feel less vulnerable. "The black student stigmatized in the classroom, for example, may bear no such devaluation on the athletic field. It is this feature of stigmatization that, I argue, affords the long-term identity adaptations of the stigmatized when schools don't develop means of counteracting the stereotypes," Steele said.

Steele, who is president-elect of the Western Psychological Association, also said it is important to recognize the power that widely disseminated stereotypes have on everyone, even those who don't subscribe to them.

Stereotypes are "a collective phenomenon," he said, which "program all of us to behave toward the stereotyped group in the same way. We resist it, those of us who try hard, but even among those of us who do try hard -- when we're distracted, when we're in a hurry, when we're busy, when the situation is ambiguous -- the stereotypes tend to shape our perception and behavior toward this group. And this is an everyday part of a student's experience throughout the course of schooling."

For individuals who are members of the groups that are negatively stigmatized, he said, it is not necessary to encounter a single strongly prejudiced person in order to be vulnerable to the stereotypes. It is often assumed, he said, that the worst part of being a target of prejudice is coping with overt acts of discrimination and bias, but it may be far trickier to confront the more subtle chronic sense of vulnerability to stereotypes.

Implications for affirmative action

The hopeful side of his research, Steele said, is that it also demonstrates that performance can be improved by making changes in academic environments (and perhaps in work environments as well) so that they don't support or amplify ability-demeaning stereotypes.

Steele's results provide ammunition to both sides in the current debate over the need for, and design of, affirmative action programs. On the one hand it shows that some forms of "special treatment" for minorities and women may do them more harm than good by reinforcing the stereotype that they are intellectually inferior. (At one university, he found that black students in a special help program for minorities performed less well at the end of their sophomore year than blacks who were in no special program.) On the other hand, his work shows that it is possible to design programs that lift the vulnerability of these students to negative stereotypes and dramatically improve their performance.

"You have to do something to break the sense of being under suspicion in order to allow these students to be less defensive and more openly engaging of their academic work," Steele said. Honorific recruiting and mentoring programs that allow people to say "I really do belong" are examples. Schools and teachers also should provide "challenge over remediation" and "portray ability as something that's expandable, because it is."

Many current college-level affirmative action policies, he said, are based on the false assumption that admitted minority students will not succeed without supplemental, remedial programs to compensate for preparation gaps in their previous schooling. Steele said he tended to hold this view until the late 1980s when, at the University of Michigan, he saw data that shocked him: Black students with the best academic preparation, not the worst, were the ones most likely to drop out before graduating.

Steele next found out that 80 percent of Michigan's entering black freshmen -- "some of whom had SAT scores to die for" -- were enrolled in a large program for minorities "that has as its implicit message and reputation skill remediation. This double message about minority students' abilities underlies many faulty affirmative action programs."

Michigan now has several successful programs, including one Steele helped design called the 21st Century Program. In its four years of operation, the program has eliminated the racial gap in grades earned by freshmen. This past year, for example, African American freshmen in the program earned a grade point average of 2.89 compared with a randomized control group of white students who earned 2.86 and a randomized control group of black students not in the program who earned a grade point average of 1.98. The program is a racially integrated transition program for new students that includes voluntary, challenging workshops in addition to regular classes and a seminar on adjustment to college life. Another successful program at Michigan helps minority freshmen to feel they belong by involving them immediately as research assistants in laboratories where they interact with faculty and graduate research assistants.

Because affirmative action has become a hot political topic in California and the nation, Steele said he expects there will be a lot of debate about it over the next year. "I think it is good to have this debate, but you might tell from the thrust of our research that I'm in favor of affirmative action. Like school integration in the past, I think it is less a matter of whether the policy is right or wrong -- I believe the policy is right and still needed -- but the devil is in the details. The policy's effectiveness depends on how it's implemented, and we would like to believe our research helps improve its chances."



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