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Race-Based Test Prep Rallies and Stereotype Threat


From Sacramento, California, we got news this week of a strange new practice. Several high schools and middle schools have organized race-based “heritage” assemblies not to celebrate Black History Month, or Cesar Chavez day, but to promote improved achievement on state tests.

According to this report in the Sacramento Bee, one high school held several separate assemblies at the same time; students had to choose between African American, Pacific Islander, and Latino-themed rallies. “Last year we scored the highest percentage increase of any group,” the African American students were told.


The school justifies this segregation by citing the need to motivate students to do well on the tests, which otherwise have no effect on their individual status. Many schools are conducting other activities designed to motivate students, including recognition and rewards for improved scores. But the race-based rallies are a new, and disturbing twist, especially in light of some other news this week.

A study was released from Stanford University which examined the impact of the California high school exit exam (CAHSEE). Researchers, led by Sean Reardon, compared students who took the exam in 2005, for whom the results were inconsequential, to those who took it later, when it determined if they would receive a diploma.


They found some fascinating things. First of all, contrary to fears, the exit exam does not seem to have substantially increased the number of students who drop out prior to completing high school. However, the exam did result in a large number of low-achieving students failing to graduate, as a result of their diplomas being withheld.

In the cohort of students not subject to the requirement, a typical student in the bottom quartile of 10th grade achievement had a roughly 45% probability of graduating from his or her original district; in the cohorts subject to the requirement, the same student had a 30% probability of graduation. Our difference‐in‐difference estimates indicate that the CAHSEE requirement caused at least 11 percentage points of the decline in graduation rates (and as much as 15 percentage points). These figures imply that roughly 3.6%‐4.5% of California high school students (roughly 18,000‐22,500 students per year) do not graduate as a result of the high school exit exam policy.

The most interesting finding was that certain groups were affected more than others.

Minority students perform less well on the CAHSEE exam than do white students with the same level of prior and current academic achievement (as measured by 8th, 9th, and 10th grade performance on the California Standards Tests). Female students perform less well on the math CAHSEE test than do boys with the same level of academic achievement. This pattern of results is consistent with ‘stereotype threat’ explanations of test performance.
Stereotype threat is the phenomenon whereby the fear that if one performs poorly on a high‐stakes test it will confirm a negative societal stereotype about one’s group leads to increased test anxiety among negatively stereotyped student groups—minority students and girls, for example—which in turn leads such students to underperform on such tests relative to similarly skilled non‐stereotyped students. The evidence suggests that the high‐stakes nature of the CAHSEE test induces minority students and girls to underperform on the CAHSEE, relative to what their prior academic performance (on low‐stakes tests) would predict. Failure to pass the CAHSEE for these groups leads to lower graduation rates. Thus, it is not that the CAHSEE test is biased, but that the high stakes nature of the exit exam testing situation combined with the presence of negative societal stereotypes about the academic skill of minority students and girls (in math) leads to underperformance by minority students and girls.

These findings have me wondering about the paradoxical affect of one of the key elements of No Child Left Behind – the highlighting of racial subgroups. This “spotlight” on the achievement gap is supposed to force schools to do a better job with historically underserved groups. What happens when this spotlight is shined on the gap in the context of race-based motivational rallies? It seems to me that this might have the effect of strengthening stereotype threat, by reminding students of the poor standing of their subgroup. I also wonder about the nature of the achievement gap itself, and how much of it might be attributed to stereotype threat.

Lastly, I can only assume that there are few, if any, white students at these schools. A rally to celebrate white test score supremacy is simply too weird to imagine.

Update: An interesting resource for anyone interested in exploring the concept of stereotype threat: http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/

What do you think?

Is anyone else experiencing racially based rallies for test motivation?

How do you think this sort of emphasis on the different performances of racial subgroups will affect our students?

Mightn't this sort of thing intensify stereotype threat, given that African American and Latino performance is usually lower than that of other groups?

image: Creative Commons: thesituationist.wordpress.com/2007/12/


And what of those children of mixed racial or cultural background? Which Diversity Team pep rally should they encouraged attend? People who still believe that our students can be neatly sorted out by race or ethnicity are just not paying much attention to the children.

Wow! This is the first time I've heard of such a thing. Just wait til the ACLU gets a hold of this. I can't see how these 'motivational' rallies are going to make much of a difference. In my opinion, the only thing that will come out of these activities is more racial/cultural tension.Perhaps if we all worked together, there would be no perceived need for such things.

You are right Aronson and Steele wrote a wonderful book on stereotype threat. These assemblies might have the best intention but they are almost a perfect recipe to reinforce stereotype threat, making kids feel inferior, even though they are trying to build them up.

With all of our social disparities already in existence, WHO in the world thought of such a crude means to raise a school's grade!! Somebody's lack of "Common Sense" and disregard to the backlash of what could result, flew out of the window during the discussion, IF there was a window of discussion! As an educator, I am fully aware of schools who are at a loss of what to do to motivate their students to pass the state's test. But, dividing/separating students into "race" will do just that! Although their goal may be to improve test scores or the state's grade, it will only infuse a biasd mentality California has never known before! In addition, are the teachers also divided during this rally? and who or what race is the motivator/speaker/facilitator? Is the individual of the same race as the students in the race rally? What are they saying? Do they know what to say and what NOT to say so that the focus is primarily on motivating rather than putting another race down? In my opinion, this is a brash move and one that has not been well thought out. But who knows? Maybe the grade will improve; maybe not. In addition, will the school disclose which race did the best? And most importantly, how will the results affect the psyche of the students who have been racially-motivated to take the rigorous exam?

Martha asks:
"...will the school disclose which race did the best?"

The state discloses how each subgroup has performed when results are released in the summer. These results are posted publicly, and now that the students have been made aware that their status as a group depends on these scores, they will be paying close attention.

I think the designers of NCLB had good intentions when they created this emphasis on subgroup data. They wanted to close the achievement gap between groups. But the latest NAEP data indicates that after eight years of this treatment, the achievement gap has not budged. Perhaps it is time to change.


I'll even concede that the folks who organized the pep rallies had good intentions. But, you have to forgive my extreme impatience with not only this particular effort, but so many others that I see soaking up the time that I am continually hearing is in such short supply. Pizza parties at the end of testing are certainly de rigeur. All sorts of principal stunts are ordered up by students who pass, or show improvement, or whatever the school is aiming at. The principal gets a pie in the face, or shaves his/her head, or sits on the roof gets dunked in a pool. Some blogger (seems like he was from DC) recounted a month of solid math and reading test prep, with promised (and then rescinded) things at the end--such as a barbeque. We have special breakfasts and special lunches, notes home to parents about how important the tests are and to make sure their kids get plenty of rest, good nutrition and don't stress.

Is anyone else as concerned as I am that we have time and energy to put into these rah-rah efforts (oh, yes, the school assemblies to get the spirit up--only now broken out by racial/ethnic groups), but can't find time for teachers to put together any meaningful plan for improvement? We don't have the time or energy to meet with parents (as required by law) to explain the deficits that have placed a school in improvement status and what the plan is to change them. I want to see a group of teachers sit down with a group of black parents and tell them that the reason that their kids are behind the others is due to stereotype threat and they want to fix it by having some racially oriented pep rallies before the test.

I am reluctant to buy into this whole lack of motivation thing about the tests. If the kids actually know the stuff that they are being tested on, it's not too hard for them to muster sufficient motivation to show it on a test. Really. Nor do I have any problem with celebrating the end of an accomplishment. These are things that should go on. But there is something profoundly phony going on here. The kids who lack motivation to do well on the tests are very likely even more lacking in any ability to do well on the tests. It's really hard to put an extended effort into playing guessing games that in the end will confirm what you already know, or fear, which is that you are not as smart, or as good as others all around you. The test is just one more indicator. This is what we are teaching many of our kids in poorly performing schools--that they can't do, or don't deserve any better. They were born in the wrong place, or the wrong time, to the wrong parents. There is just something wrong with them that schools cannot be expected to fix.

If the best we can do is rallies and special breakfasts, I think we at least owe it to the kids to decide what would be helpful to them. By high school they deserve to be allowed that much participation in decision-making. But don't you think we could do better by putting our efforts into something more closely related to, you know, teaching and learning?

what's the big deal? Is the problem the "pep-rally" atmosphere surrounding standardized testing or is the problem addressing students by their race/ethnicity? They have to check the box with their race so why not have race-based discussions?

Question: Did students say "we scored the highest percentage increase of any group?"? or did the teachers/administrators say "we"? 1. I think that's great that students were using that type of language and had that awareness . . . 2. I was curious if these were teachers of the same/different ethnicity groups? I would support it if it were the same . . . against it if there was a group of white teachers rallying the latino students to do better on the tests.

The concern I raise is that according to the research I linked to, African American and female students sometimes underperform on high stakes tests due to the pressure attached to the outcome.

To quote the site "Reducing Stereotype Threat":

"Situations in which an individual believes that his or her ability in a stereotypic domain will be evaluated can create a strong sense of group identity and stereotype threat. When a test is described as being able to provide reliable and valid information about one's ability in a stereotyped domain, feelings of anxiety and intrusive thoughts of failure can arise, harming performance."

I am not raising this issue as a political question regarding group identity. I do not take issue with students identifying with their ethnic group. I am asking, however, that we attend to the relevant research that seems to be saying that this approach may be counterproductive.

(see http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/situations.html)

I don't have a problem with the assemblies per se. The assemblies are within the context of test-test-test so it is understandable that schools are in the position to do whatever-it-takes to raise test scores to save their schools.

The problem being stereotype threat . . . is the response to take away the test (which I doubt is happening anytime soon) or addressing stereotype threat (which maybe they can do in these race-based assemblies).

All the while, where does teaching come in? Not teaching to the test but real teaching. Because while there are some good teachers teaching to the test, there are many poor teachers that weren't doing much teaching anyway and now they're teaching to the test.

This is what NCLB (at least conceptually) was trying to address in the first place.


I am with you as regards my preference for the focus to move onto improved teaching/education. I am no expert on stereotype threat, although I was aware of the research that found an impact from moving the reporting of demographic data from the beginning to the end of the test.

But, I did browse the website as recommended. There were some further suggestions for ways in which to counteract stereotype threat in a testing situation. These had to do with emphasizing in advance what the test was and was not measuring, as regards bias. I wonder about much of the loose talk about testing that I hear from teachers, and then repeated by students. Such things as the tests are unfair to poor (or black or hispanic or urban) kids, or that the tests are unreliable (one year's test might be harder than the previous year's), or that they don't measure what they are supposed to or "what's really important."

Some of this is unfounded claptrap. While there are normed tests of all kinds of thing related to intelligence that have built in bias, I don't know that anyone has ever found this be true of the criterion referenced tests that are used by states. In fact, there is a pretty high level of "best practice" governing most. Items are reviewed for content validity, for bias and sensitivity and field tested in actual testing situations to pick up any anomalies that might otherwise have been missed. I don't know that many teachers realize this, and they certainly are not passing this information on to students.

I wish that teachers were telling students that the tests are measuring their knowledge in relationship to content standards, that they are just as capable of learning that content as any other student in the state--and if we fall short we can figure this thing out together.

Right on Margo/Mom !!

The kids should be fully aware of their own data.... How else do we help them understand the importance of owning it?

At my school, on the first class day of each month, we ALL take a 30-minute "benchmark assessment." We have a special "scanner" which not only scores the mini-test, but also provides EACH STUDENT with a summary about each question on the test and the specific skills it was intended to "test." When a student answers a question incorrectly, we analyze WHY the incorrect choice was made. Layered into this is a lesson on the importance of analysis as a way of understanding goal- and strategy-setting.

"Stereotype threat" sounds like someone's clever way of staking claim to the discovery of yet another "syndrome" and to make excuses for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the "achievement gap."

Overcoming one's feelings of inferiority (real or perceived) is a universal life lesson. Cultural and racial identity complexes are no more "real" or "problematic" than penis envy.

Once again, we find that "capable" is not synonymous with "willing" or "determined."

There are only a few ways to get from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other. If all one has is that with which he was born, then no crossing will be quick, easy, or efficient. The sooner the kids realize upon which side they stand, the sooner they can begin the task of crossing over.

We must teach them that they do not have to like this "place" at which they find themselves, but they must EMBRACE it in order to proceed. In fact, the dissatisfaction can be channeled into some seriously positive and motivational energy.

The problem is when reality sets in. When it "hits" them that "closing the gap" will be a tough, thorny, rocky trek down and an even harder climb up the other side.

It is so much easier to make excuses rather than to achieve results - even when it is for selfish purposes.

I agree with much of what Rory writes. When I taught 6th grade math, I would start each year with a short diagnostic test that had several questions using multiplication, several using division, fractions, decimals and so on. Then we corrected them together, and the students were able to assess their abilities on the different math skills that they needed. Those who were weak in multiplication were given extra work to master their times tables, and we rechecked these skills through the year as they moved towards mastery. (I posted this lesson on my old web site here: http://tlc.ousd.k12.ca.us/~acody/math1.html)

The research on stereotype threat is NOT telling us to leave our students blissful in their ignorance. It IS telling us that when students are aware that a test will reflect on their performance as a member of a group that suffers from a negative stereotype, they may underperform. Researchers have made a number of suggestions, some of which are echoed in comments above. Students can be helped if they are told the test does not discriminate, and that they have the capacity to do well. They can be encouraged by role models who have excelled. It also is helpful for students to be taught that intelligence is not fixed – it can be developed with effort.

It is possible that test prep rallies might feature some of these positive lessons. I raise the concern, however, that organizing them along racial lines might raise anxiety among students in a way that might hurt their performance. It would be fascinating to see research done in this area.

Anthony--I'm not so big on pep rallies or other last minute focus on the test of the sake of the test. But, I do wonder why one couldn't accomplish the same things in rallies that cross racial lines.

Weighing the pig more often doesn't make the pig weigh more. Spend that valuable time teaching instead of testing.

I'm okay with the testing. I'm okay with NCLB--NCLB is what has given teeth to equity. I'm not okay with biased teachers and poor teachers . . . teachers that don't care about the kids and think that everything is an "excuse" and they should all just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. A sense of entitlement is believing that you have earned what you have accomplished solely by your effort and that others must only work harder.

Don't tell me how you test your students. Tell me how you teach them.

Race-based rallies...stereotype threat...NCLB has pushed education back to the dark ages of segregation.

The dark ages of segregation never left.

The difference between segregation then, and now....

Then... it was a systematic approach to prevent certain groups from fully experiencing life, liberty, and happiness. Fear of the unknown.

Now... (in the age of technology) it is itentionally self-imposed, because without it..... there would be no fall-back plan for the purposeful avoidance of responsibility. Fear of the known.

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