The effects of stereotype threat on standardized mathematics test performance and cognitive processing

Two studies investigated stereotype threat and test performance among Black middle-school students. Study 1 investigated whether stereotype threat was a potential source of suboptimal test-taking strategies in mathematical standardized testing with Black 8th graders (N = 159) who attended magnet schools. Students were categorized as either high achievers, moderate achievers, or low achievers based on their rank on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) mathematics section. Prior to taking a math test, students were either told the study was investigating mathematics achievement (stereotype threat) or were told the study was about thought processes and that the test was fair and unbiased (control). Although there were no statistically significant effects, there was some evidence that high achievers performed better on some aspects of the test in the control compared with the stereotype threat condition. Experiment 2 sought to identify the possible source of performance differences by focusing on a subset of test takers from Study 1 (N = 17). These students completed a different set of math items using a think-aloud protocols and follow-up interviews about their experience solving test items (e.g. cognitive disorganization). The think-aloud and follow-up interviews were independently coded by two researchers. Students test-taking strategies were coded as conventional (e.g. using algorithmic techniques, assigned values to variables, plugging in variables), unconventional (e.g. using logic, estimation, insight), or involving guessing. Students in the control condition were more likely to use unconventional strategies compared with students in the stereotype threat condition. Those operating under stereotype threat reported experiencing more time-related cognitive disorganization and difficulty in timekeeping compared with the control condition. These results contribute to the literature demonstrating that stereotype threat can adversely affect test-taking strategies and performance.

Arbuthnot, K. (2009). The effects of stereotype threat on standardized mathematics test performance and cognitive processing. Harvard Educational Review, 79, 448-472.