Study Finds Fear of Prejudice Hurts Test Scores

Stanford Professor Says 'Stereotype Threat' Can Affect Performance of Minorities, Women

Women and black students often perform lower on tests when confronted with fear of being "judged by stereotype," said Stanford University Professor of Psychology Claude Steele in a speech last night sponsored by the Harvard Education Forum.

In a series of experiments conducted by Steele, women and black students took standardized tests in which the subject of race or gender was brought up by the test proctor. Although Steele said the women and blacks were of the same ability level as the white men who took the tests, they scored significantly lower.

When the subject of race or gender was not brought up before the test, there was no discrepancy in the results.

Steele described this phenomena as a "stereotype threat" that causes students to overcompensate in an attempt to disprove common misconceptions of race and gender.

"They are not performing badly because they are giving up, but because they are trying too hard," Steele told a crowd of about 150 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Steele said his study dealt mainly with students who performed well in school because they have a bigger stake in their academic performance.

When black and women students are faced with the issue of race or gender during tests, their blood pressures tend to rise. According to Steele, this physical change confirms that the issue of stereotypes causes agitation to the students, resulting in lower test scores.

"The problem is not due to any biological limitation, but a stereotype threat," he said.

After the test of the black students, the proctors passed out a questionnaire about the students' favorite activities. Steele said that disproportionate amounts of black students denied enjoying certain stereotypical activities such as playing basketball.

The student will do anything to try to deny the racial stereotype, he said.

Steele said that optimistic relations with adult role models as well as a drive for increased relationships among diverse students will help solve the problem.

He initiated a program at the University of Michigan in which a diverse group of students were placed into a special dormitory during their first year. The students engaged in four hours of extra work each week and participated in weekly seminar discussion with their peers.

A chart of these students' grades revealed that, on average, minority students scored higher than their peers who did not participate in the experiment.

"The program reduced the sense of stereotype threat," Steele said