Stereotype threat and college admissions
But to fail to take race into account when making admissions decisions would not only do a disservice to the University, it would also be violating the very “fairness” that some opposed to affirmative action base their opposing stance on. The exclusion of race in admissions would make it an unfair process due to the psychological concept of stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is the tendency for members of a negatively stereotyped group to underperform when membership in their group is brought to their attention right before completing some task. The effects of stereotype threat are both stereotype-specific and task-specific. If you remind a white person of his race before he competes in a high jump event, he will jump less high than he would have if his race were not explicitly introduced into his mind. Especially dangerous for the college application process is the effect that stereotype threat has on certain minority groups. Even doing something as subtle as having a black student fill in a bubble to indicate his race before taking an exam can cause his score to fall. There is also some evidence for the possibility of a stereotype boost, though this concept is not as accepted as stereotype threat. For example, if an Asian student indicates his race just before taking a math test, the score may actually improve.
Stereotype threat and stereotype boost have significant implications when students take standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. The scores that end up on students’ academic records can underestimate or overestimate their actual ability based on the inclusion of one psychologically potent condition that is almost never present in other areas of academic life. It is not the case that before you start your statistics midterm you have to indicate all of the stereotyped groups that you belong to before you start calculating your z-scores and p values.
Although the concept of stereotype threat is well established and has received a fair amount of media coverage, testing agencies completely ignore the harmful effects that placing demographic information at the beginning of their tests can have on students. There is an extremely simple and intuitive solution to this problem: Why not put demographic questions at the end of the tests?
Until testing agencies implement this change, admissions officers should be aware of, and consider the effects of, stereotype threat when making their decisions. But how to take stereotype threat into account in admissions becomes an issue. Stereotype threat’s effect on the college application process is mostly limited to the realm of standardized testing. For stereotype threat to be detrimental, the test-taker’s race must be pointed out just before completing a task. This doesn’t regularly happen anywhere but standardized tests.
The question then becomes the following: Should there be any sort of institutionalized, blanket addition or subtraction of test scores to account for the effects of stereotype threat? It does not seem intuitively fair to start subtracting 30 or 40 points from Asian students’ SAT scores while adding 30 or 40 points to black applicants’ scores. Even if this does seem like a good idea to anyone, ceiling effects will start to play a role: It would become impossible for Asian students to get a 2400 but it would be possible for black students to get above a 2400. But it is definitely worth noting that two applicants, one black, one Asian, with identical test scores probably do not possess equivalent levels of inherent testing ability since one is getting his score cut while the other is getting it boosted on the basis of his race.
I would advise admissions officers not to use the concept of stereotype threat to make broad policies regarding their handling of applicants’ test scores. Rather, it should just be an effect that they are aware of when deciding between two students with identical test scores, if such purely comparative decisions ever do come up in the admissions process. Of course, this is predicated on the assumption that test scores are of great importance to the college admissions process. But test scores are obviously not everything. Racial diversity adds to the overall intellectual and social community of the University as well. Accounting for race when making admissions decisions will not only add to diversity on campus, it might also make for an academically stronger class overall.
Richard Daker is a sophomore from Evergreen Park, Ill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.