Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Testing Identity

Testing Identity

Researcher develops tools to remedy race, gender gaps
in standardized test performance

After finishing a lecture about using euphemisms to
discuss embarrassing or upsetting topics—death, bodily
functions, sex—Dr. Matthew McGlone, assistant
professor of communication studies, was approached by
an African American woman in the audience whose
daughter was about to enter kindergarten.

“Do you have any suggestions on how I can talk to my
daughter about African American stereotypes she might
have to confront in school?” she asked.

A heartbreaking, yet relevant, question considering
that social stereotyping emerges so early in
children’s thinking. Gender typing begins around age
2. By the age of 5, most children endorse the
prevailing gender and ethnic stereotypes in their
environment. By their middle elementary years,
children become aware of intelligence-oriented
stereotypes, such as the belief that white people are
smarter than black people and boys are better at math
than girls.

Matthew McGlone

Dr. Matthew McGlone teaches courses on cognition,
persuasion and prejudice in interpersonal
communication. He is writing a book with Dr. Joshua
Aronson at New York University on stereotype threat,
due out in 2009.

McGlone first became interested in the influence of
stereotypes on academic performance as an
undergraduate statistics instructor in the 1990s. He
was perplexed to observe many talented women and
ethnic minority students stumble on standardized
tests, despite appearing to master concepts in
homework, class discussions and one-on-one

According to the College Board, which administers the
Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), women consistently
achieve lower SAT math scores than their male
counterparts, while African Americans achieve lower
scores than whites. Some researchers have attributed
these gaps to hormonal differences between men and
women or genetic differences between different ethnic

McGlone was intrigued by what he’d seen with his
students and felt strongly that biological factors
were not responsible for the differences. He was
delighted to learn that an acquaintance, Joshua
Aronson, associate professor of applied psychology at
New York University, was investigating the psychology
of stigma. Since then, the two have collaborated in
investigating ways to remediate race and gender gaps
in educational achievement and standardized test

Cuing Social Identity

Survey researchers have known for years that identity
issues influence the way people answer opinion
questions, especially in the context of political
research. Women respond differently in political
opinion surveys depending on the gender of the survey
administrator, with a tendency to report more liberal
attitudes when asked by a woman.

“What’s surprising is that identity issues can come
into play into what is ostensibly a test of your
knowledge,” said McGlone. “Heightened awareness about
your identity as a man or woman or member of a certain
group could influence your performance on a
standardized math test.”

This phenomenon is called stereotype threat—the fear
that one’s behavior will confirm an existing
stereotype of a group with which that person
identifies, leading to impaired performance. It was
first articulated by Aronson and social psychologist
Claude Steele of Stanford University.

“Stereotype threat can be induced by a variety of
subtle cues in the testing environment,” McGlone said,
“such as the gender composition of a class or being
asked to indicate one’s ethnicity or gender on a test
demographics question. These cues heightened awareness
of people’s ‘ascribed identities’—for example,
identities based on things about themselves that they
can’t easily change.”

McGlone acknowledged that many aspects of personal
identity are achieved—membership in social categories
based on individual achievements—rather than ascribed.
He contended that deficits in test performance caused
by stereotype threat could be mitigated by reminding
test takers of the achieved identities they possess
for which there are positive performance expectations.

“In other words, by putting women in a situation where
they’re not preoccupied with negative gender
stereotypes, you can significantly reduce the gender
gap in standardized testing performance,” he said.

Heightened awareness about your identity as a man or
woman or member of a certain group could influence
your performance on a standardized math test. Dr.
Matthew McGloneMcGlone tested his hypothesis by
priming different social identities among
undergraduates prior to administering the Vandenberg
Mental Rotation Test (VMRT), a standardized spatial
reasoning test linked to math performance. The VMRT
typically produces the largest documented gender
difference in any cognitive ability, a difference some
academics have attributed to genetic differences in
intelligence favoring men.

McGlone and his colleagues asked male and female
students at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., to take
the VMRT. Prior to the test, the participants
completed one of three short questionnaires composed
of six questions designed to cue a particular social
identity: their residence in the northeastern U.S.,
their gender, or their status as students in a
selective private college.

He found that women who were primed to contemplate
their identity as students at a selective private
college performed at a significantly higher level on
the VMRT than those primed to contemplate their gender
or a test-irrelevant identity. In contrast, priming
selective private college status among the male
participants did not improve their performance.
However, priming their gender status (men are better
at math) did improve their performance.

“These results suggest that priming a positive
achieved identity (selective private college student)
can alleviate women’s anxiety about confirming the
negative stereotype that ‘women can’t do math,’” said
McGlone. “When we primed this positive identity in
men—for whom there is no negative stereotype regarding
their math acumen—their performance was no better than
when their gender was primed.

“We were able to significantly reduce an allegedly
large gender difference with a pretty simple
manipulation,” said McGlone. “Regardless of whether
the documented gender gap is due to biology or
socialization, we can narrow it by psychological

Applications for these findings might include
eliminating subtle cues from standardized math testing
environments that might make gender identity issues
salient to women and impair their performance.

“We’re pushing for the College Board and other
standardized testing organizations to move demographic
questions to the end of the test,” said McGlone.
“Testers think they’re just collecting data in asking
for gender, ethnic and geographic information, but
there’s a subtle—and consequential—communication going
on here. It says, ‘Your gender matters.”’

“By simply manipulating when questions are asked we
can appreciably improve SAT scores,” he said.
“Ideally, cues that heighten awareness of any negative
stereotypes—ascribed or not—should be eliminated from
testing environments.”

The Vandenberg Mental Rotation Test typically produces
the largest documented gender difference in any
cognitive ability

The Vandenberg Mental Rotation Test typically produces
the largest documented gender difference in any
cognitive ability, a difference some academics have
attributed to genetic differences in intelligence
favoring men. Illustration: Nicholas Bright.

Until that happens, students, especially women and
those in ethnic minority groups, should consider
focusing on attaining additional identities—those
associated with positive academic expectations—as a
means of improving academic performance.

It’s important to note that while stereotype threat
accounts for some of the disparity in standardized
test performance among men, women and ethnic
minorities, there also are accumulated socialization
factors that contribute to these differences.

Stereotyping Among Children

“It’s important to get kids to think about defining
themselves in ways that transcend their gender and
ethnicity early on,” said McGlone. “But talking to a
5-year-old about coping with gender and ethnic
stereotypes is fraught with problems.”

There are many tools for measuring stereotype ideation
in adults, but they typically require sophisticated
reading and reasoning skills that make them
inappropriate for the under-10 set.

In 2002, while working as a fellow at the Center for
Research on Culture Development and Education (CRCDE)
at New York University, McGlone and his colleagues
assessed the social factors that influence elementary
and middle school children’s academic achievement in
New York City public schools. Among the factors being
assessed were children’s access to and use of popular
media and communication technologies, which contribute
to the disruptive influence of self-relevant

“We conducted in-home visits to assess the parents’
relationships with their children and how these
relationships influenced the children’s cognitive and
social development,” said McGlone. “Familiarity with
gender and ethnic stereotypes was one of the many
aspects of social development we investigated. We were
particularly interested in how the parent-child
relationship influenced the age at which children
exhibited familiarity with stereotypes.

“In conducting these assessments, we needed a tool
that allowed us to measure and quantify the kids’
stereotype beliefs in a subtle manner.”

McGlone created an age-appropriate measurement tool
based on the classic children’s game “concentration”
or “memory.” In the traditional game, players examine
a set of cards placed face down in a grid formation.
Each card has an image on its face that is identical
to one other card in the grid. On each turn, the
player turns over two cards on the grid. If two cards
match, they are removed from the grid. The object of
the game is to remove all cards from the grid by
identifying all of the matches.

The twist to McGlone’s game was the gender and ethnic
composition of the faces and the stereotypes

During their in-home assessments, researchers gave
children one of three decks of cards with the face of
a boy or girl on one side and pictures of objects
(cooking utensils, trucks, etc.) on the other. The
decks consisted of the stereotype deck, which
re-affirmed stereotypes such as cooking/girl or
doctor/boy, the counter-stereotype deck, which went
against convention with cards such as computer/girl,
doll/boy and the non-stereotype deck, which included a
combination of both stereotype and counter-stereotype

By putting women in a situation where they're not
preoccupied with negative gender stereotypes, you can
significantly reduce the gender gap in standardized
testing performance. Dr. Matthew McGloneMcGlone and
his team found that children performed the game much
faster with the face-object relationships conformed to
gender stereotypes (for example, two boys who like
trucks or two girls who like cooking) than when they
did not (for example, a boy and a girl who like

“We measured the time it took children to finish
stereotype-consistent or inconsistent grids with a
stopwatch to create an index of their endorsement of
gender stereotypes,” he said. “And we found that the
children were quite familiar with gender-based
activity stereotypes (for example, boys like fishing,
girls like cooking) by the age of 5.

“Five- and 6-year-olds love this game and can fly
through the stereotyped cards in two to three
minutes,” said McGlone. “But it takes kids much longer
to go through the counter stereotype deck. Even kids
from highly liberal households performed much better
on the stereotyped deck than the counter- and
non-stereotype deck.”

This demonstrates that children’s intuitions are in
line with stereotypes, which is why the counter- and
non-stereotype decks—where you can’t rely on your
assumptions—were harder for children.

Armed with the findings from his research with the
CRCDE, McGlone and his colleagues created workshops to
teach middle schoolers about stereotype threat and how
to handle it when taking their entrance exams for the
New York City magnet schools.

“To be forewarned is to be forearmed,” said McGlone.
“We talked to the kids about the things they’re good
at and their multiple identities: girl, soccer player,
science enthusiast, etc.”

By instructing the students to think of their
achievements and things in which they excel, McGlone
and his colleagues were able to take the weight off
the stereotype—girl, African American, etc., and
dramatically cut the performance gap on magnet school
entrance exams.

“By telling kids ‘what makes you YOU is what you DO,’
we got them to focus on their achievements,” he said.
“It sounds like a very simple manipulation—and it
is—but it has significant effects on students in a
standardized testing situation.”

Trait Mate

The game proved to be a valuable tool for measuring
stereotypes among children and—equally important—the
children were enthralled with it. It got McGlone
thinking about the mother’s question, “How do you talk
to children about stereotypes?” And “How can you
prevent stereotypes from interfering with children’s
academic success?”

Enter Trait Mate, an online game he is developing for
measuring and modifying children’s social stereotype
beliefs. A Web-based version of the “memory” card
game, Trait Mate serves as both a tool for researchers
to measure children’s knowledge and beliefs about

In addition to being used as diagnostic tool for
researchers and educators, Trait Mate can be a
stimulus to negate stereotype ideations.

Many people think about intelligence as something that
is fixed. I'm intrigued with the idea of teaching kids
to think of their mind as a muscle, which can get kids
excited about learning. Dr. Matthew McGlone“For
example,” McGlone said, “after completing several
Trait Mate grids in which no stereotyped trait mates
are present, and gender and ethnicity cues have no
value in determining trait mates, kids’ endorsement of
social stereotypes may be reduced by virtue of this

“I foresee teachers incorporating Trait Mate into
their social studies curriculum and using the results
as a springboard to discuss prejudice and gender
stereotyping,” McGlone said. “A teacher could have the
kids play the online game and then discuss why one
version of the game was easier than the other.”

Trait Mate is being developed—under McGlone’s
guidance—by the members of Girlstart, a nonprofit
organization that empowers girls in math, science,
engineering and technology. McGlone hopes to make it
available online to researchers and educators in the
coming year.

The Mind as a Muscle

McGlone is interested in further exploring
interventions and is conducting preliminary research
on getting children to think about intelligence as
something that can change.

“Many people think about intelligence as something
that is fixed or something you’re born with,” he said.
“I’m intrigued with the idea of teaching kids to think
of their mind as a muscle, which can get kids excited
about learning.”

McGlone and a colleague are developing a prototype for
an online math game targeting fifth- and sixth-graders
featuring an avatar that gets bigger as players build
their skills, allowing players to do more things, go
further in the game and ultimately score more points.
“If I can get these kids, who often think of
intelligence as something that can’t change, to think
about the fact that how they’re doing in school has
more do to with what they’re doing, not what they’re
born with, that can make them less vulnerable to
stereotype threat,” McGlone said.

By Erin Geisler at

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