A simple way to boost minority test scores

Monday, August 12, 2013

Last week, 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.

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