Studies Offer Conflicting Results on ‘Obama Effect’

When exposed to Obama’s political success, test scores for Blacks improved in one study but not in another.

Then-president-elect Barack Obama greets school children after making a surprise visit to St. Columbanus Catholic School on the South Side of Chicago on Nov. 26, 2008.

Could merely knowing that an African-American has been elected president of the United States raise the scores of Blacks on standardized tests and shrink the unrelenting and formidable achievement gap? Possibly, suggests a recent study documenting the “Obama effect” that will appear in the July issue of a scientific journal alongside a study that contradicts it.

Preliminary results of a study suggesting that Barack Obama’s political success translated into a narrower gap between Blacks and Whites on standardized tests in 2008 attracted both optimism and skepticism when it was reported around the time of his inauguration.

The study offered hope that an affirming role model and positive feelings could patch the gap between Whites and Blacks long documented in almost every measure of academic performance. Media reports have suggested that parents and educators see ample anecdotal evidence that Obama’s example has inspired Black students to take schoolwork more seriously.

When one team of researchers tested Blacks and Whites at four intervals at the peak of the 2008 election year, median scores for the two groups shifted, significantly narrowing the spread after Obama’s election, according to the results announced earlier by the researchers, Dr. Ray A. Friedman of Vanderbilt University, Dr. David Marx of San Diego State University and Dr. Sei Jin Ko of Northwestern University.

However, a study by Dr. Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology of New York University, one of the pioneers of research on race and academic achievement, and colleagues found “test scores were unaffected by prompts to think about Obama and no relationship was found between test performance and positive thoughts about Obama.” The findings were based on a test administered after Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee last summer but were only recently noted in the news media.

Ironically, Friedman had not expected to find a difference but did. Aronson says he expected to find one and did not.

“I found not even a shred of evidence,” Aronson tells Diverse. “I did not expect a full closing of the gap, because I think the gap is about many things, but I did expect to find something … . It just was not there.”

The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology will publish both studies, along with two other papers on the effects of Obama’s election. The articles are already available online.

Even if the “Obama effect” proves to have only a small effect, Friedman tells Diverse, “the underlying impact of Black/White differences in scores is so fundamentally important that any small shift is going to be beneficial for the country.”

To conduct his study, Friedman, a professor of management at Vanderbilt, was able to tap into a virtual laboratory at Vanderbilt with a subject pool of 100,000 people who have signed up to take part in studies.

The researchers administered tests online to a nationwide sample of 84 Black and 388 White participants using questions on reading comprehension, analogies and sentence completion drawn from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

Four groupings of people each took the test at one of four intervals over a three-month period: before the Democratic convention, after Obama’s acceptance speech on Aug. 28 (comparing those who did and did not watch it), a midpoint between the speech and the presidential election, and finally after Obama’s victory.

In the first testing, the median score for Whites was 12.14 of 20, compared to 8.79 of 20 for Blacks. After Obama won, Whites scored 11.9, compared to 9.83 for Blacks.

At the times when Obama’s achievements were most concrete and visible, after the nomination acceptance speech and after the November election victory, Black scores were up and Whites down slightly, statistically eliminating the gap, researchers said.

Blacks who did not watch Obama’s acceptance speech lagged further behind Whites (6.79 to 13.19) who had not watched it than did those Blacks who watched the speech (10.32) when compared to Whites who watched (12.11).

A Different Result

In the Aronson study, a random sample of Black and White college students aspiring to attend medical school took a 24-question verbal section of the Medical College Admissions Test. Of 119 test takers analyzed, White students’ median score was 18.7, compared to 14.2 for Blacks. Before the test, students in randomly assigned groups took a survey, accompanied by photos and quotes intended to get them to reflect positively on Obama, John McCain or neither. Black students’ scores showed little variation when prompted to think good thoughts about Obama than in the other two situations.

Aronson, often along with Dr. Claude Steele, the noted social psychologist, has conducted numerous studies on how the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group depresses the performance of Black, Hispanic and female college students. They identified this phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” in a 1995 study. Friedman cited their work in his article.

Earlier studies have shown that asking a participant’s race, ethnicity and gender and implying that the tests were an important measure of intellectual abilities can lower scores but that introducing a positive role model into the testing situation can raise them. Some researchers have found, for instance, that having a math test administered by a strong female role model significantly boosts girls’ scores on the math test, overcoming stereotypes about women’s abilities.

Although Aronson did not find an “Obama effect” last year, he says he plans to conduct another test this summer. “I believe if we play up the struggles of Obama, rather than his greatness, we will see an effect.”

The NYU researcher believes that one reason scores might not have been affected is that Obama is seen as so naturally gifted, as opposed to having had to work hard to become so talented, that he is not the kind of role model that has proved effective in earlier research.

“Perhaps his abilities are so stellar that the typical student cannot confidently conclude that ‘if Obama can succeed, so can I,’” the Aronson report said.

While much attention has been paid to the increase in Black scores in the Friedman study, the fact that White scores dipped at times has been largely ignored. That effect is not news to researchers, however, Friedman says. In prior research on stereotype threat, he said, “there has always been a little bit of an effect with Whites feeling a little better about themselves under those conditions (that trigger risk for Blacks).”

Overcoming stereotype threat “won’t make (test-takers) have a higher ability,” Friedman says. “It just means the test will more accurately reflect their full ability.”

Nor does it mean disparities in education or funding do not need to be addressed, he emphasized.

“We are not presuming that when Obama got elected, someone who hadn’t had algebra will suddenly pass algebra,” he says. “If people have the ability, it will let them achieve that ability.”

Friedman says he did not plan a follow-up but would consider studying Obama’s effect on small children.

“We have captured the critical time, which was the transition before and after Obama, which of course can never be done again,” he says. “But I think there are going to be a lot of studies as to what impact Obama could have and what families can do. Maybe it’s that before your kid goes out to take the SAT you could give him a book on Obama.”



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