Identity Threat and the Racial Achievement Gap

Awarded Scholars:
Geoffrey Cohen, University of Colorado, Boulder
Project Date:
Nov 2007
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Stanford psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues have shown that the test performance of minority students deteriorates when they believe that others will judge any lapse in their performance as confirming negative stereotypes about their group. While the detrimental impact of stereotype threat has been well documented in laboratory experiments, we know less about how it affects the performance of students in actual classrooms over long periods of time. And we know almost nothing about pedagagogical practices that can address minority students’ anxiety and help reduce the racial achievement gap.


With an award from the Foundation, psychologist Geoffrey Cohen will extend previous research on identity threat into real school environments. Cohen’s project includes three major components. First, the investigators will examine the trajectory of identity threat in African American and Latino students over time. Second, they will study whether – and in what ways – long-term identity threat affects performance in classrooms and on statewide achievement tests. Third, they will explore how experimental interventions designed to alleviate stereotype threat can affect a student’s academic trajectory. Cohen has already completed a four-year longitudinal study of identity threat in a northeastern middle school. His team will continue to track these students, who were assigned to either a control or intervention condition in the sixth grade. The investigators hypothesize that identity threat intensifies over time and has increasingly generalized effects, spreading beyond the classroom. They suggest that higher racial identification among minority students may buffer certain students against the negative impact of identity threat. Findings will be published in psychology and education journals as well as policy outlets and will form the basis for an RSF book outlining the implications of this important research for social policy.



RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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