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Excerpted From: Arusha Gordon, Don't Remind Me: Stereotype Threat in High-stakes Testing, 48 University of Baltimore Law Review 387 (Summer, 2019) (186 Footnotes) (Full Document)

ArushaGordonThink back to the day you took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or some other standardized test. Like most people, you probably took your seat, put your sharpened Number 2 pencils on the assigned desk and, after listening to instructions from a proctor, started the task of bubbling in your name, address, school, sex, gender, and other identifying information. You likely thought nothing of it--after all, if you are like most students in American schools, you probably grew up taking many tests in which you bubbled in your identifying information right before you got down to business and actually took the test. But what if you were told that the test was not only measuring your knowledge related to the tested material, but also your ability to navigate around mental processes which might tax your ability to focus solely on the test? What if you learned that the test environment, the students in the room, the test administrator, and even the process of bubbling in your identifying information could impact how well you performed?

For years, social psychologists have studied how these factors could impact the performance of members of different social identities through a process known as “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat refers to a psychological phenomenon in which a member of a negatively stereotyped group underperforms on an activity because of increased anxiety that they may confirm the negative stereotype. This article examines the role of stereotype threat as it relates to racial and gender identities in high stake testing in educational settings. While there is a significant body of literature, primarily in the field of psychology, discussing the impact of stereotype threat on members of different social groups, and while there is a substantial body of literature discussing legal strategies through which advocates have challenged standardized testing, this article aims to help fill the space between these two bodies of literature. Namely, this article examines the role of stereotype threat in testing, and what advocates can do to reduce the impact of stereotype threat in high-stake standardized testing.

Part II provides an overview of stereotype threat; what it is, factors which contribute to stereotype threat, the impact of stereotype threat, and who stereotype threat affects most significantly.

Part III considers the legal landscape of standardized testing, with specific attention given to how research concerning stereotype threat might play a role in claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972.

Part IV considers strategies addressing stereotype threat, and discusses the science behind techniques to reduce the impact of stereotype threat on testing, as well as policy and advocacy approaches to addressing the issue.

[. . .]

Stereotypes permeate society at all levels, influencing children as young as four. Students who are members of social groups which are subject to negative stereotypes concerning a certain subject or area of expertise may have to navigate a mental “tax” when taking a standardized test in that subject. This mental “tax”--otherwise known as stereotype threat--raises questions regarding whether common practices used in standardized testing might create an unequal playing field.

Lawyers and other advocates invested in ensuring students have equal opportunities must continue to educate themselves about the unconscious impact stereotypes can have on students. A range of civil rights laws provide the means to challenge practices which may trigger a psychological response and disadvantage women and minority students on standardized tests.

Attorneys and investigatory agencies can rely on previous case law challenging standardized testing practices to pressure stakeholders to change practices which trigger stereotype threat and may cause underperformance by women and minority students. Policy advocates can also rely on social science research and civil rights law to put pressure on education departments and testing companies to adopt practices and guidelines which reduce the impact of stereotype threat in their testing procedures. 

Arusha Gordon serves as Counsel on the Voting Rights Project and the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.