What your test scores don’t say about you

A new study finds negative stereotypes can mask people’s academic abilities

Consider the following scenario: university admissions officers have narrowed applications for the final place in an engineering program down to two. The candidates have similar credentials and identical test scores; the only difference is that one is a woman and the other is a man. Who should they choose?

The answer may come as a surprise. According to a paper slated for publication in Psychological Science, the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about the intellectual capacity of women in math and sciences likely led the female applicant to underperform. Though her test scores may be the same as those of her male counterpart, the woman has a “significant untapped potential,” says University of Waterloo professor Steven Spencer, who co-authored the study with Stanford University’s Greg Walton. Put simply, she’s the better choice.

Test scores and grades have long shown an academic achievement gap between genders and ethnicities. In the past, this discrepancy has been explained by factors like poverty and poor schooling, which, it has been believed, lead to real differences in ability. Latent Ability: Grades and Tests Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students makes a new and very different case for affirmative action.

While Spencer and Walton don’t deny that socio-economic factors play a role in academic performance, their research, gleaned from a compendium of studies that include 19,000 students in Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and the U.S., has identified stereotype threat as another cause.

According to Spencer, stereotype threat comes into play whenever “you feel you can be judged based on a negative stereotype about your group.” As he explains, for non-Asian minorities and women (in quantitative fields), the belief that they don’t belong, or that the odds are stacked against their success, causes these students to “become excessively careful” when answering questions, a strategy that’s particularly ill advised on standardized tests. At the same time, he says efforts to “tamp down thinking about a stereotype … actually eats up a lot of their cognitive resources,” reducing the capacity of short-term memory. The feeling of belonging may be an abstract concept, but the implications are very real.

On the SAT, for example, the professors say black and Hispanic students score about 40 points below their true ability, and on the math portion, women score about 20 points under where they should. And it’s not just on college entrance exams. Spencer says that stereotype threat in high schools and even junior highs mean grades and test scores could underestimate the ability of these students for the majority of their academic careers.

But there is hope. Compared to factors like poverty and poor schooling, says Spencer, reducing stereotype threat is relatively easy. Simple interventions, such as telling college students that there is no group differences on a particular test or getting junior high kids to write about values that are important to them can “make a big difference in performance,” he says. To eliminate it completely, he says academic institutions must work to identify at-risk groups and develop long-term strategies to make them feel accepted.

“That feeling of belonging is really the antidote to this [belief] that you’re going to be judged based on stereotypes about your group,” says Spencer. In the meantime however, he says admissions officers should take stereotype threat into account when making decisions-not because women and minorities need a boost to succeed, but because tests hide the fact that they already have.