kitchen table math, the sequel: AP calculus scores & stereotype threat

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

AP calculus scores & stereotype threat

As I understand it, stereotype threat is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy that takes place below the level of consciousness -- although when I experienced stereotype threat while competing on a television game show my thoughts were conscious, intense, and pretty close to crippling.

I had won a spot on Sale of the Century, and when the big moment arrived I was to play against two men: one white and one black.

I was gripped by stage fright. Sitting in the studio with the group of aspiring contestants who had made the first cut, waiting to see whether I would be called, I felt so terrified I wanted to bolt from the room.

The only thing stopping me bolting from the room was the stage fright I felt at the prospect of people watching me bolt from the room. Which is worse? Having a roomful of strangers watch you play a game show? Or having a roomful of strangers watch you run screaming from the room instead of playing a game show?

I chose door number one and stayed put in my chair; and when I was called to play, two men were called to play, too. I was led to the seat between them.

Suddenly, entirely unbidden, my Betrayer Self began to think: "I can't win against men. I can't win against men. I can't win against men." Over and over again. "I can't win against men."

I was aghast.

I had an Ivy League degree and a Ph.D.; I was a committed feminist; I thought the idea that men were my betters was hooey. Plus I knew boatloads of random factoids and trivia, and Sale of the Century was a random factoids and trivia contest. Yet there I was thinking -- thinking very loudly -- "I can't win against men." Until that moment, I had had no idea I felt that way.

So when it comes to stereotype threat, I'm a believer.

I won that game, but the reason I won was that the black contestant, who was a better player than I, appeared to be suffering an even worse case of stereotype threat than the one threatening to derail me. I won't tell that part of the story here. Suffice it to say that he made an on-camera allusion to what he was feeling just before choosing the wrong square on the board and giving the wrong answer: and losing the game. It was a painful moment. More than painful; it was excruciating. I recall a murmur of what sounded like distress running through the audience.

I managed to defeat the white male contestant mostly because a) he appeared to be just as panicked as I was and b) I knew a lot more random factoids and trivia than he did. And heaven only knows what kind of stereotype threat might have been hammering his brain. Stereotype threat isn't just for for blacks and women; it's for everyone. In fact, you can lower the math performance of white male students attending Stanford University if you remind them, before they take the test, that they aren't Asian.

After I won the game, I calmed down and won two more games, then retired with cash instead of gambling my certain winnings to play on in hopes of making it to much bigger winnings at the top: a classic example of Kahneman and Tversky's concept of loss aversion.

Back to stereotype threatSian Beilock discusses stereotype threat at length in Choke. Turns out there is a (disputed) study of stereotype threat and AP calculus scores finding that when test-takers fill out the personal info form, which includes gender, after they've finished the test instead of before, girls score better. (The dispute has to do with statistic methodologies and significance.)

From the 'pro' authors:
Pragmatically speaking, the “trivial” differences carefully dismissed in Stricker and Ward (2004) can translate into very large practical effects, with real theoretical meaning. The inquiry manipulation reduces the gender difference to less than one third its original size. Instead of a ratio of about 6 girls receiving AP credit for every 9 boys who obtain credit, the new manipulation generates a ratio of about 8 girls receiving AP credit for every 9 boys.

How would this manipulation affect females at the population level of all students taking AP Calculus AB? Stricker and Ward (2004) told us that 52,465 boys and 47,275 girls took the test in 1995 (p. 669). ... [C]hanging the way the tests are administered would increase the number of girls receiving AP Calculus credit from 15,081 to 17,870 in a year—an increase of 2,789 young women starting college each year with Calculus credit.

This size number should not be below the radar. The number of people taking the AP Calculus AB test is increasing. In 2004, there were 88,809 boys and 81,521 girls who took the exam (College Board, 2004), which represents an increase of 70.8% since Stricker and Ward collected data in 1995. All other things being equal, we estimate that 4,763 more women would receive AP Calculus AB credit if the timing were changed. We are convinced that stereotype threat in real-world testing situations can have a significant effect on test takers, and Stricker and Ward’s (2004) data support this conclusion.

Stereotype Threat, Inquiring About Test Takers' Ethnicity and Gender, and Standardized Test Performance
Lawrence J. Stricker, William C. Ward
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Volume 34, Issue 4, pages 665–693, April 2004

Stereotype Threat in Applied Settings Re-Examined
Kelly Danaher and Christian S. Crandall
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Volume 38, Issue 6, pages 1639–1655, June 2008
[figures drawn from Danaher and Crandall]

Stereotype Threat in Applied Settings Re-Examined: A Reply
Lawrence J. Stricker, William C. Ward
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Volume 38, Issue 6, pages 1656–1663, June 2008


palisadesk said...

Hey, you were on Sale of the Century? So was I. I won some money but don't remember exactly how long I lasted. It was fun actually. Oddly, although I am usually quite self-conscious in public situations, I wasn't bothered at all, because the TV atmosphere seemed completely unreal, and I knew none of my friends watched the program. All that was strangely liberating.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh - that's amazing!

Were you living in LA?

I don't know what got in to me. I'm normally not self-conscious in public situations, and I had never experienced anything like stage fright.

The whole experience was kinda life-altering in terms of finding out there's a lot going on inside your mind that you have no conscious access to.

What else don't I know about what I don't know?