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Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers
Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have
said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student
could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher
Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a
performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test
administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was
administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential
The inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome
anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to
lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude
in a report summarizing their results.
“Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute
to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking,” said Ray
Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, one of the study’s
three authors. “We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results
The study has not yet undergone peer review, and two academics who read it on
Thursday said they would be interested to see if other researchers would be able
to replicate its results.
Dr. Friedman and his fellow researchers, David M. Marx, a professor of social
psychology at San Diego State University, and Sei Jin Ko, a visiting professor
in management and organizations at Northwestern, have submitted their study for
review to The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Dr. Friedman said.
“It’s a very small sample, but certainly a provocative study,” said Ronald F.
Ferguson, a Harvard professor who studies the factors that have affected the
achievement gap between white and nonwhite students, which shows up on nearly
every standardized test. “There is a certainly a theoretical foundation and some
empirical support for the proposition that Obama’s election could increase the
sense of competence among African-Americans, and it could reduce the anxiety
associated with taking difficult test questions.”
Researchers in the last decade assembled university students with identical SAT
scores and administered tests to them, discovering that blacks performed
significantly poorer when asked at the start to fill out a form identifying
themselves by race. The researchers attributed those results to anxiety that
caused them to tighten up during exams in which they risked confirming a racial
In the study made public on Thursday, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a
brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record
Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers
during last year’s presidential campaign.
|A small study's results lead to calls for further
In total, 472 Americans — 84 blacks and 388 whites — took the exam. Both white
and black test-takers ranged in age from 18 to 63, and their educational
attainment ranged from high school dropout to Ph.D.
On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12
of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr.
Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s
nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black
performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically
nonsignificant,” he said.
“It’s a nice piece of work,” said G. Gage Kingsbury, a testing expert who is a
director at the Northwest Evaluation Association, who read the study on
But Dr. Kingsbury wondered whether the Obama effect would extend beyond the
election, or prove transitory. “I’d want to see another study replicating their
results before I get too excited about it,” he said.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times,
National, of Friday, January 23, 2009.
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