`Stereotype Vulnerability’ Being Overcome As Black Students Raise Their SAT Scores And Collect More Degrees
For years the whispered joke at some of the nation’s most selective institutions compared higher education for many minority students to roach motels: Students walk in but they don’t walk out — at least not with degrees.
Now, not only are minority students succeeding, they are surpassing academic expectations. Part of the academic success story is told in the slow, but steady, rise of Scholastic Assessment Test scores among Blacks and other minority students. So much for walking in to higher education.
The walking out punchline is being undercut by an even more prized statistic from the College Board showing a steady increase in recent years in the number of degrees awarded to Black students.
Even with improvements, however, a performance gap remains between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts.
“The thing that accounts for the gap is the treatment that the kids get,” says Dr. Abdul Ali Shabazz, a mathematics professor and graduate programs coordinator at Clark Atlanta University (GA). “Test scores have nothing to do with it.”
Shabazz is part of the corps of higher education professionals who assert that the difference in academic outcomes between Black and white students does not have to remain wide.
Instead of approaching minority students as stepchildren of the academy, Shabazz and a growing number of scholars insist there are ways to close the performance gap between Black and white students without remedial coursework.
With more student collaborative study, attentive and sensitive instruction and a set of lofty expectations, as well as direction in how to get the most out of the undergraduate experience, people whose higher education careers were not expected to survive the maiden undergraduate year are joining the ranks of academic high-steppers.
“The ethos about how to handle minority students is that they lack sufficient preparation to do the work, and that viewpoint has gotten so institutionalized through the years that everybody just takes for granted that the way to handle these students is to give them remedial programs,” says Dr. Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychologist. “I think that just the opposite works.”
Steele, the twin brother of conservative Black scholar Shelby Steele, is one of the most vocal proponents of changing the approach to Black and other minority students.
He claims that Blacks often are at the low end of the performance gap on standardized tests and coursework because of a subtle form of discrimination that encourages failure.
Because of what Steele calls “stereotype vulnerability,” minority students are affected by “a sense of anxiety about being judged stereotypically,” he says.
In other words, when they perceive that they are in a situation in which poor performance will confirm low expectations, those perceptions drive their performance.
Their focus on the task at hand is blurred by “a sense of apprehension about fulfilling the assumptions that are held about them,” he says.
Says Steele: “They should have challenging work and high standards, instead of remedial work and low standards.
“One big thing that’s easy to do is just get rid of those remedial things and demand more, rather than less. A lot of what’s wrong is the presumption that they can’t do the work.”
The rest of the formula for boosting student retention is built around a few common sense notions, he says. At the heart of the drive to retain students must be mechanisms to convince students that their instructors are on their side, Steele says.
He says it is important to assert to students “that they have the potential for building strong relationships with adults and teachers so that they believe in their potential.”
Dramatic results are now being achieved in a handful of colleges across the nation that helps turn the derisive comparison of some students to roaches into just another stale old joke.
The growing number of academic retention success stories include:
* Black and Hispanic students outnumber whites as mathematics majors at the University of Texas at Austin, where a novel approach to teaching math is flourishing.
* A 265-member group of the University of Michigan’s incoming freshman class perform demonstrably better than the rest of the school’s more than 5,000 first year students because of the university’s 21st-Century Program; and
* A freshman class at Mt. St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, CA, each year is filled with students who have completed a summer pre-college course in which a student’s background in mathematics, science and language are brought up to high standards.
Those are just a few examples of the programs now operating to aid first-year students and enhance their chances for success. That approach is increasingly winning acceptance among higher education scholars and administrators.
Many of the success stories are linked to individual professors who refused to accept the notion that poor performance from a class of students is inevitable.
At Clark Atlanta University, for instance, Shabazz is debunking the idea that low SAT scores predict subpar performance in mathematics.
Working with students whose SAT scores would not have gained them entry to more selective colleges, Shabazz’s mathematics department has become the source of more than half of the nation’s Black Ph.D.s in mathematics.
“The degree to which a student excels depends upon his own hard work,” he says
His approach stresses developing the student’s confidence in his own ability to solve math problems, while putting an Afrocentric spin on the subject by noting African and non-European origins of the discipline.
Shabazz describes his approach as a rescue mission for Black students who have been told that they can’t perform up to high standards. “We’re in the salvaging business.” he says.
Of the estimated 200 African Americans who hold Ph.D.s in mathematics or mathematics education, “We account for 100 or more of them.” Shabazz says.
While Shabazz was honing his method, Uri Treisman, now chairman of the University of Texas at Austin’s mathematics department, was wrestling with the dilemma of why Black students at the University of California-Berkeley were underperforming.
About one thing he was certain: Remedial education programs weren’t working as expected.
“Remedial programs, if they succeed, help kids get to the starting point,” Treisman says. However, he says, “If remedial programs don’t succeed, the stigma of being in a remedial program weighs heavily on them.”
The answer, he says, lay in collaborative study. When students worked together to solve problems and study, the result was better comprehension by the students.
Group study is a key part of a freshman-year program at the University of Michigan. Called the 21st-Century Program, an interracial group of 265 students is selected from the 5,000-member freshman class.
The group shares one wing of a selected residence hall and, in addition to their regular class load, meets twice a week for two-hour workshops in math, chemistry and physics.
“It’s more than just a study group. This is a way of sending a message to students that you can rise to a level of expectations as high as we can set for you,” says the program’s Assistant Director David Schoem. “The students come to understand that they can do high-level academic work.”
But the key to the approach is intense and sensitive instruction, says Treisman. “If you demand more of students and don’t give them any support, you can do damage,” he says. “If you don’t provide substance, they will crash and burn.”
His warnings are echoed by others who are skeptical about de-emphasizing remedial programs but agree that the quality of teaching is a critical element in any freshman retention program.
Asa Hilliard, director of educational policy studies at Georgia State University’s School of Education, says lackluster teaching sustains the performance gap. “I don’t agree with the explanation that ascribes deficiencies to students.” he says.
The idea of freshman seminars is not new, notes John Gardner, director of the University of South Carolina’s University 101 program, which has emphasized a training component for instructors to make sure that they know how to bring the best out of the students. “It’s a training program for teaching students how to be successful,” he says.
In place since 1972, the program has been a winner for the university, resulting in a 90-percent retention rate for freshman. Gardner says.
It has been widely imitated, too. A similar program at Mt. St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, CA, has generated similar results. The West Coast version of the program begins in the summer before the freshman year and stresses mastery of writing skills and basic math.
Sister Kathleen Kelly, program director at Mt. St. Mary’s, says that the program is tailored to “academic support and social support.” She claims a retention rate of 70 percent.
Georgia State University’s Hilliard asserts that the achievements of such programs reflect an upgrading of instruction. Says Hilliard: “We keep having to prove over and over and over…that the quality of teaching works.”
Hilliard says he believes that the disparity in performance is a reflection of what he calls the “savage inequities” in the differing backgrounds of minorities and whites.
“I agreed with the point that the students are capable,” he says, but insists the flashpoint of the problem is a reflection of public policy decisions.
“In terms of money, the teaching available [and] the curriculum offered to Blacks…there’s a savage inequity,” he says. The difference stands out in bold relief in per-pupil expenditures at inner-city schools as compared with the funds available at the more affluent suburban school systems.
“Until you eliminate the inequities in the expenditures, you don’t need another theory. Just look at how the kid is treated,” says Hilliard.
RELATED ARTICLE: SAT Averages for Ethnic Groups by Selected Years
VERBAL 1976(*) 1985 1990 1995([double dagger]) White 451 449 442 448 Black 332 346 352 356 Mexican American 371 382 380 376 Puerto Rican 364 366 359 372 Other Hispanic N/A N/A 383 389 Asian American 414 404 410 418 American Indian 388 392 388 403 Other 410 391 410 432 MATHEMATICAL 1976(*) 1985 1990 1995([double dagger]) White 493 491 491 498 Black 354 376 385 388 Mexican American 410 426 429 426 Puerto Rican 401 409 405 411 Other Hisaanic N/A N/A 434 438 Asian American 518 518 528 538 American,indian 420 428 437 447 Other 458 448 467 486
SOURCE: College Board, 1995
(*) Note: This is the first year SAT scores were compiled by race and ethnicity.
([double dagger]) Note: These scores were scaled subsequent to the recentering of the SAT
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