Five months into Barack Obama‘s presidency, two researchers are at odds over whether a so-called “Obama effect” can bump up black students’ standardized test scores and help to close the achievement gap between blacks and whites.
In the days after Obama’s election in November, school officials across the country reported a noticeable improvement in students’ performance — particularly in black communities — and attributed it to Obama’s success.
But two studies have produced conflicting reports on the existence of such an effect — calling into question whether inspiration alone is enough to bring quantifiable change.
In a study conducted during the 2008 election, Dr. Ray Friedman of Vanderbilt University found that black students achieved higher scores on standardized tests when they were reminded of Obama’s achievements before the test. Their higher scores narrowed the gap between black and higher-scoring white students, suggesting a tangible effect of Obama’s presidency.
Friedman said the students who earned higher scores likely overcame “stereotype threat” — a fear that one’s performance will confirm an existing negative stereotype of a group with which one identifies, resulting in psychological discomfort.
Friedman has claimed that blacks are far more likely to score below their potential when asked to identify their race on a test — or when they are told an exam will measure innate abilities, like intelligence.