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Are Educators More Likely to Help Black Students Access Advanced Programs?

It's been more than a decade since George W. Bush first cautioned against the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and a new study suggests one counterintuitive way it could play out in the classroom: Giving black students more leeway in getting into an academic honors program.

Back in 2015, Education Week dug into the problem of heavily racially segregated honors and gifted courses as part of a series on the effects of unconscious bias in the classroom. As part of that series, we invited Jordan Axt, a psychologist with the University of Virginia's Project Implicit, which studies unconscious biases and how they affect behavior, to look at how our own readers would approach the problem of admitting students into an honors program. The results are out, in a new study in the latest issue of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

implicit bias test.JPGAxt asked the more than 600 mostly white education professionals (essentially the readers of the Education Week series, mostly teachers, principals, and district staff, all of whom opted on their own to take the survey) to select student participants for a "high school academic honors program," based on their science and humanities grade point averages, letters of recommendation, and an interview score. Each student's application included a photo—like the one at left—that suggested the person's racial ethnicity, and the participants were given a few minutes to select which students should qualify for the honors program. 

After making their selections, the participants reported on their explicit attitudes about students of different racial groups. Finally, they were given an Implicit Association Test, in which participants quickly match pairs of words and pictures—for example "high achieving" or "scientist" with black and white faces. Over thousands of trials, researchers have found people take slightly longer to match items that run counter to their own unconscious biases.

Axt found, in keeping with previous studies of the general population, that education professionals at all grade levels tended to give a slight edge to applicants who appeared black rather than white, even if they had lower average grade point averages or less favorable interviews. However, most of those who performed the task believed they had treated both black and white students equally, and they had intended to do so. 

It's not clear whether the educators subconsiously lowered their standards for black students, or were thinking about the task in the larger contest of needing to bring more diverse students into honors classes, but Axt suggested, "the educational professionals in this sample may have used different standards for black than for white applicants, meaning black and white applicants were not being judged against each other but only against the standard for that racial group. Relative to expectations, the black applicants may have seemed more impressive, creating a lower admissions criterion and a higher acceptance rate to the academic honor society."

Read more about implicit bias and its effects on education—and try out the same task used in this study for yourself—in Education Week's "Beyond Bias" series.

Graphic: Fictional student profiles like this one were used to help test teachers' racial biases in the context of selecting students for a high school honors program. Source: Project Implicit.

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