Data Dive: Addressing Stereotype Threat and the Achievement Gap

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Background: Schools across the nation continue to grapple with the achievement gap, and the literature suggests that academic gaps between white children and their non-white counterparts grow as students make their way through school. Stereotype threat —  the sense of apprehension individuals feel when they are afraid their actions or parts of their identities will confirm a negative stereotype about the group to which they belong — is one factor social scientists believe contributes to the achievement gap.

The Study: A 2016 study by Geoffrey Borman, Jeffrey Grigg, and Paul Hanselman examined how one type of intervention, called self-affirmation, could offset the effects of stereotype threat. Exercises in self-affirmation offer students the chance to affirm their self-worth by thinking, writing, or speaking about the skills, values, or roles they view as important.

The Context: In prior research by Borman, Grigg, and Hanselman, self-affirmation through expressive writing had shown promise. In one study, the gap between the grade point averages of black and white students was reduced and persisted for two years. In the current study, seventh graders from across the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin were given four in-class writing exercises.

The Findings: The researchers found that the academic outcomes of white and Asian students were not influenced by self-affirmation. However, self-affirmation positively impacted the academic performance of students who might experience stereotype threat (although to a smaller extent than in earlier studies).

Our Take: Recognizing the challenges that the achievement gap presents, any solutions that provide a route to equity should be considered. This study further supports the notion that self-affirming interventions might be a worthwhile approach to helping overcome gaps in achievement.

Anna Koranteng is a research associate at NACAC. She can be reached at akoranteng@nacacnet.org

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