Stereotype Threat

Last modified date

By Asia Merrill
22 February 2021

While the morality of standardized testing has been in question for at least 20 years, it’s becoming harder to ignore the ways that it weaponizes gender and racial stereotypes. Recently I came across an article, courtesy of The American Psychological Association about the dangers of stereotype threat. To summarize briefly, it uses research to demonstrate that simply being more conscious of one’s status as someone associated with a negative stereotype–whether that’s as a PoC or a woman–caused worse performance on standardized testing. During the research, this was sometimes done through a subconscious suggestion, like telling participants taking a math exam that the test showed gender differences, thus forcing women to be aware of the stereotype that they lack proficiency in math. As stated in the article,

Stock photo of students in a classroom

“Additional experiments that minimized the stereotype threat endemic to standardized tests also resulted in equal performance. One study found that when students merely recorded their race (presumably making the stereotype salient), and were not told the test was diagnostic of their ability, Blacks still performed worse than Whites.”

American Psychological Association, July 15, 2006 c

This calls to mind the many instances in which people are asked to disclose their race, gender, or sexuality on job applications, graduate school applications, standardized tests, or in any other seemingly innocuous setting. It raises questions about the necessity of these demographic questions, whether they can be done without. 

The following is an interview with Claude Steele, author of the book Whistling Vivaldi. He summarizes the dangers of stereotype threat in the classroom.

I first encountered the article through The Writing Center, as a discussion on the ways we as consultants can be mindful of stereotypes. We discussed ways that this phenomenon would effect our interactions with writers. This led me to wonder about the teaching of theory and racial literature in the classrooms; does the outcome of this study apply to conversations about feminism and equality? According to Steele,

“If stereotype threat and identity threat are the problem in a situation, then what you need to focus on is building a sense of identity safety in the classroom or in the workplace.”

Steele elaborates that this is achievable by developing trust that students will not be exposed to negative experiences in the classroom based on having a certain identity. Educators may consider actively studying inclusive teaching pedagogy or developing a reputation within a community of having an attitude of allyship, therefore setting a standard in a classroom. Ultimately, there is no way to guarantee the quality of another person’s experience; while many things are out of the control of educators, what is within their control is how instances of stereotype threat or even bigotry is addressed in the classroom.

Have thoughts? Critiques? Comment below!

Asia Merrill