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Racial Differences

Standardized Tests And Race

A variety of race comparative studies have been conducted in the field of psychology and, more specifically, in child development. Race comparative studies on self-esteem, identity formation, out-of-school activity participation, risk taking, parenting style, and parental monitoring number in the thousands. Perhaps the most controversial area of study of racial and ethnic differences has been in intellectual performance. Many African-American and Native-American children score, on average, twelve to fifteen points lower than their European-American peers on standardized IQ tests. Hispanic-American children's scores fall between African-American and European-American children's, whereas Asian-American children's scores tend to be at the same level as scores of European-American children. It is important to note that neither IQ, future academic performance, nor life success can be predicted from an individual's race or ethnicity.

Researchers have suggested several possible explanations to account for racial and ethnic differences in intellectual performance. The first explanation is that standardized IQ tests and testing procedures are culturally biased toward European-American middle class knowledge and experiences. According to Janet E. Helms, IQ tests are designed to measure cognitive skills and information that middle class European-American children are more likely to have acquired. Researchers have attempted to make IQ tests more culturally fair, so members of minority groups and lower socioeconomic status are not placed at an instant disadvantage when taking them. A completely culture-free test, however, is good in theory, but not so feasible yet in practice.

Another explanation that has been suggested for racial and ethnic differences in intellectual performance is that minority children are not motivated to do their best on standardized tests. John U. Ogbu suggested that negative stereotypes about minority children's abilities may influence their ideas about their future educational success and career prospects. Children may feel that because of societal prejudice and discrimination they may not be able to get ahead in life, so the effort that they make and how well they score on a test is irrelevant. Furthermore, Ogbu suggested that African-American children may associate academic achievement and doing well on tests with "acting white" rather than with the values of their own group. Thus, they may avoid doing well because of the fear of being rejected by their own racial or ethnic group for behaving in ways valued by or associated with the majority culture. Claude M. Steele suggested that minority children and adolescents may experience stereotype threat—the fear that they will be judged to have traits associated with negative appraisals and/or stereotypes of their race or ethnic group (e.g., African Americans are not smart in reading; Hispanics just cannot do math; African Americans are simply intellectually inferior)—which produces test anxiety and keeps them from doing as well as they could on tests. According to Steele, minority test takers experience anxiety, believing that if they do poorly on their test they will confirm the stereotypes about inferior intellectual performance of their minority group. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins, and the child performs at a level beneath his or her inherent abilities.

In 1994, in their book The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggested that differences in IQ are the result of genetic differences between the races and cannot be explained simply on the basis of test bias or socioeconomic status differences. They also suggested that these IQ differences were responsible for higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and welfare dependence in minority groups as compared to majority groups. Arthur R. Jensen agreed with the genetic hypothesis and proposed that humans inherit two types of intellectual abilities: Level I abilities, related to memorization and short-term memory, and Level II abilities, which deal with problem solving and abstract reasoning. Jensen believed that all children perform Level I tasks equally well, but that European-American children perform Level II tasks better than children from other racial groups. Herrnstein and Murray were met Changes in the "face" of America demand that individuals try to understand developmental processes operating in children from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds. (Tony Arruza/Corbis) with extreme protest from many researchers who felt their claims were exaggerated, if not completely false. Critics suggested that Herrnstein and Murray's research was not scientifically rigorous. All findings relied upon a single data set, ignoring a century of research in the social sciences; the standardized tests used in their research measured academic instruction rather than inherent ability; the comparison groups were poorly designed; and they repeatedly overinterpreted weak relationships in the data. Moreover, The Bell Curve failed to explain within-racial-group differences in IQ. Similarly, neither the genetic hypothesis nor Herrnstein and Murray's theory of intellectual performance could account for multiracial children's IQ scores or the scores of adopted children.

The last and most compelling proposed explanation for racial differences in intellectual performance is that differences are the result of environmental circumstances. The subject of racial differences cannot easily be separated from the subject of socioeconomic class. Racial and ethnic group membership, in fact, is highly related to socioeconomic stratification. There is a direct correlation between parental income and education with standardized test scores. The scores of minority test takers tend to be lower, because minority children and adolescents on average come from families with lower incomes than do European-American children and adolescents. Furthermore, poor children and children from minority groups, who are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, are more likely to grow up in circumstances that do not favor intellectual development. Lack of access to resources and economic hardship can affect intellectual growth. Poor nutrition, poor health care, and living in chronic poverty or violent neighborhoods are just some of the factors that can combine to produce less than optimal learning environments.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 6Racial Differences - Historical View Of Race, Standardized Tests And Race