Study: Obama Mystique Improves Test Scores Among Blacks

During the election season, President Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, sparked a “Yes We Can” frenzy, reassuring African American students that they could make greater academic strides.

In fact, Obama’s determination to persevere throughout the campaign caused African Americans to perform better on standardized tests, virtually on par with their White counterparts who typically garner higher scores, researchers of a new study claim.

Documenting what the authors of the report call the “Obama Effect,” the study found the performance gap between Black and White Americans in a series of online tests was dramatically reduced during key moments of the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama’s accomplishments garnered the most national attention.

The researchers administered four online tests to participants at four distinct points during the campaign trail. Two tests were dispensed at the pinnacles of Obama’s popularity, during the convention when he accepted the Democratic nomination and immediately following Election Day.

Two other tests were offered during the periods when Obama received less media attention and overall excitement lulled: before his acceptance of the nomination and the mid-point between the convention.

During the periods when Obama’s media presence was less visible, there was a significant disparity in the test scores of Black and White adults who had taken old GRE exams. During peak moments of Obama’s campaign, however, test scores between Black and White adults were virtually the same.

Researchers pinpointed that Black Americans who did not watch Obama’s nomination acceptance speech lagged behind their White peers, while those who did view the speech successfully closed the gap.

“Clearly, when African Americans are seeing Obama, [they] are inspired by him.  They see him as a role model, and their ability to perform better on tests goes up,” according to Dr. Ray Friedman, an associate professor at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and co-author of the report.

Friedman and his team of researchers were surprised to find a real “Obama Effect” that transcended jubilation or excitement.

“We were hopeful to see if [Obama] had an impact beyond just general inspiration,” Friedman told Diverse. “If you’re a kid who is about to take the SAT test, you might want to pull your book about Barack Obama off the table and make very clear in the mind of that kid the examples of someone who is a brilliant student, a high achiever.” 

A social impediment known as the “stereotype threat effect,” contributes to the poor performance of some African Americans on standardized tests, Friedman said in a video promoting the study.

“African Americans perceive that there are stereotypes about their academic achievement. If they take a test where they believe that the [outcome] is going to be used to indicate whether [all] Blacks are generally smart or not, there is an increase in anxiety and distraction and they perform less well,” said Friedman, noting that counter role models, like Obama, can help people overcome the stereotype threat effect.

Obama doesn’t alleviate anxiety, added Friedman.

During periods when Obama’s popularity ran high, Black test-takers still worried about reinforcing negative stereotypes, he said. “What Obama did was inspire them to overcome.” 

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