CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY
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Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
UI researchers find fear of success lowers IQ; may explain lower
minority test scores
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may earn
lower scores on standardized tests because they fear that academic success
will alienate them from friends or family members and arouse suspicion
among teachers, a University of Iowa study has found.
Michael Lovaglia, a UI professor of sociology and the principle investigator
of the study, found that a person's performance on a standardized test
is strongly affected by what that person expects from a high score. For
example, students from disadvantaged groups may expect that their teachers
will suspect them of cheating or that their friends will consider them
"nerds" if they achieve a high score on a standardized test.
The study provides a new window for research on the reasons many students
from minority groups achieve lower scores than white students, even when
their educational backgrounds are similar. Lovaglia suggests that many
minority group members worry about facing a hostile reaction both
from other minority students as well as from white students -- if they
demonstrate high mental ability and that concern causes them to score lower
on standardized tests.
Lovaglia said that on average, black students score about 10 IQ points
lower on standard tests of intelligence than do white students with similar
social backgrounds. "People have been studying the differences in
test scores for years, trying to determine what caused the disparity but
could not find a social process that was responsible," he said. "In
addition, those studies could not rule out genetic differences as a possible
explanation. Our study was conducted under controlled laboratory conditions
so that we could rule out genetics and other external factors. Our study
is the first to demonstrate that an individual's perceptions of others'
reactions to his or her success can have a negative effect on IQ scores."
Published in the current issue of "The American Journal of Sociology,"
this study is important for research on the biases of standardized tests
because it is the first one that rules out factors unique to particular
groups, such as genetic differences, Lovaglia said. Previous research conducted
by professor Claude Steele of Stanford University had shown that reducing
fears about the consequences of a high score on a standardized test could
increase the test scores of
African-American students. However, it was unknown whether the effect
was limited to African Americans.
This new study tackled this question to show that white students who
expected negative consequences from a high standardized test score would
also earn lower scores than students who expected positive consequences,
Lovaglia said. This finding allows researchers to generalize that the expected
consequences for the outcome of a test can affect the scores of a wide
variety of test-takers who worry about a high test score, even those usually
An example of students who faced negative consequences from a high standardized
test score that may be familiar to many Americans comes from the 1988 film,
"Stand and Deliver," a true story starring Edward James Olmos
as Jaime Escalante, a calculus teacher at Garfield High School in inner-city
Los Angeles. The movie depicts students in his Advanced Placement Calculus
class dealing with unsupportive parents and other family members and being
taunted by friends for spending so much time studying. In addition, when
they achieve high scores on the A.P. Calculus exam they are accused of
cheating because officials at the company that scored the test do not believe
that students from an impoverished background are capable of success on
the rigorous exam.
"This example illustrates two important aspects of standardized
test performance," Lovaglia said. "First, minority students
often have good reason to fear the consequences of a high test score. Second,
and more importantly, changing people's expectations about the consequences
of a high test score, as Jaime Escalante did for his students, can change
their score on a standardized mental ability test."
To reach this new conclusion, Lovaglia and his UI colleagues, Jeffrey
Lucas, Jeffrey Houser, Shane Thye, and Barry Markovsky, conducted a series
of experiments in which people were brought into the laboratory individually
and then were randomly assigned to one of two social groups. Members of
one group were treated as a privileged majority and members of the other
as a disadvantaged minority. The effect was achieved by bringing people
into the laboratory and individually testing their aptitude for work on
a team project that would include both advantaged and disadvantaged group
The instructions explained that it was rare for a member of the disadvantaged
group to score high enough to achieve the highest level of pay and responsibility.
The instructions further explained that in the past, members of the disadvantaged
group who had achieved the necessary score for high pay and responsibility
had performed poorly in the team exercise and were therefore not trusted
by team members. The participants were also told that team members were
resentful of disadvantaged group members who had achieved the highest level
of pay and responsibility.
After about half an hour of such instruction, all participants were
given a standard test of mental ability, the Raven Progressive Matrices,
under identical test conditions. Those people assigned by chance to the
disadvantaged group scored seven to eight IQ points lower than did those
people assigned to the advantaged group. Because participants were college
students who had been randomly assigned to either the advantaged or disadvantaged
group, members of the two groups could be expected to have similar IQ levels
as the experiment began.
Lovaglia said that while the 7-point IQ difference produced by the study
was not as large as the 10-point difference between blacks and whites in
the United States, it was nonetheless a substantial difference. "Remember
that the 7-point difference was created by half an hour of instructions
whereas differences in expectations between African-Americans and European-Americans
build up over years," he said.
The researchers concluded that differences in social status must be
considered in any attempt to measure mental ability.
"You can't compare the standardized test scores of members of different
social groups because something other than ability is affecting those scores,"
Lovaglia said. "We need a better way to decide who gets the 'good
stuff' in society -- who gets to go to college, who gets the good jobs."
(Editors note: Lovaglia is available for interviews and is willing to
demonstrate for reporters the test used to give his research subjects the
feeling of being part of an "advantaged" or "disadvantaged"
group. He can be reached at (319) 335-2494.)