A Simple Way to Boost Minority Test Scores

Students writing in classroom.
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Corbis

Two days ago, Bloomberg’s Education Department released some demoralizing statistics: Just 30 percent of the city’s kids in grades three through eight passed the state’s standardized tests in math, and just 26 percent of them passed the state’s tests in reading. When isolating the grades of minority students, the numbers were more alarming still: Just 15 percent of African-American students and 19 percent of Latinos passed the math exam, and just 16 percent of both passed the reading exam.

To some extent, these results were expected. Numbers across New York took a dive this year, because the state, for the first time, tried to tailor its exams to a more rigorous set of national standards called the Common Core. How the city will address these plunging scores — in 2009, students passed the English exam at a rate of 77 percent — is a long-term problem, one among many woes for the public-school system as it tries to ready young New Yorkers for the global economy. But the achievement gap is especially disturbing, serving to underscore not just the severity of the test-score problem citywide, but the painful disparities in cultural and economic resources between schools, and between the city’s families.

There is, however, a modest effort the city can make to mitigate these disparities. Since 1995, social psychologists have shown that among the many obstacles black and Latino students face in an academic setting is a psychological one, something they refer to as a “stereotype threat.” Simply put — and as the phrase suggests — it’s a concern about confirming negative stereotypes: When taking tests, students of color aren’t just worrying about the exam itself, but about what people might think of them and their ethnic group once the results come in. Managing this anxiety about their own competence amounts to a second task, almost, “depleting cognitive resources and undermining performance,” as University of British Columbia’s Toni Schmader, a psychology professor who looks at this issue, puts it.

In the past few years, though, researchers Geoffrey Cohen, Jonathan Cook, and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (among others) have shown that a simple psychological intervention can narrow these test-score differences. Several times throughout the academic year, they asked hundreds of seventh- and eighth-graders to do “values-affirmation” exercises — fifteen-minute writing tasks in which the students were asked to expound on something that mattered deeply to them (family, religion, an extracurricular pursuit). The results? The black students who did this exercise saw their grades improve by roughly a quarter of a GPA unit, compared to those who did not. (Among white students, on the other hand, the task had no significant effect on their academic performance.) The number of African-American students assigned to remedial education or forced to repeat a grade fell from 18 percent to 5 percent.

These students know what the beliefs about them are,” says Cook, a professor of psychology at Penn State and a research scientist at Columbia. “It’s not like it’s a secret. So approaches that help students cope with these beliefs can help improve their grades.”

This is one of those intriguing experiments in social science that’s been replicated dozens of times over, and in all sorts of contexts. Latino students also do better under these circumstances, for instance. Schmader and her colleagues have done studies showing that university women are more apt to solve math problems correctly on a more general exam if they’re told they’re being tested for something else. (Indeed, she and her colleagues have even found that women are better at solving math problems under a different name.)

Values-affirmation interventions do not, by any means, make the achievement gap disappear. But what they say about testing is worth thinking about. All of us know that tests don’t just measure intelligence, but privilege. Now, perhaps, we can add another idea to the mix: that they measure confidence as well as competence. To some extent we’ve always known this, of course: Those who choke during an exam don’t do as well as those who don’t. But here you have an instance where the threat of paralysis is constant rather than circumstantial. And for very little cost, the city can help remove it.