Student Well-Being

Study Refutes Claims of an “Obama Effect”

By Debra Viadero — May 26, 2009 1 min read
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Claims of an “Obama effect” on student achievement may be “exaggerated,” says a New York University researcher.

Back in January, yours truly was among the dozens of media folks who reported on a Vanderbilt University study that found evidence that African- American college students’ test performance improved markedly during high points of President Obama’s political campaign, such as his acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention. The improvements in performance at that point were large enough, in fact, to close the achievement gap between black and white students taking the test.

But the same hypothesis failed to pan out for Joshua Aronson and his students at NYU. For their experiment, which was conducted at the same campaign high point that the Vanderbilt study references, the NYU researchers studied black and white students from a residential summer program for medical school aspirants. Before the students were scheduled to take the verbal section of the Medical College Admissions Test, the researchers “primed” them for a possible “Obama effect” by asking them to complete a short survey on either Obama, his then-rival John McCain, or a completely different topic.

Writing about Obama, it turned out, gave the African-American students no special boost in scores and they continued to lag behind their white peers. Their study is scheduled to appear in July in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Aronson says his findings suggest that “claims about an Obama effect are probably exaggerated, most likely due to biases in the method and sample used in the much-discussed first Obama-effect study.”

“As much as I believe in the power of role models,” he adds in a press release put out today by NYU, “I suspect that the greatest contribution Obama will make to narrowing the achievement gap will be his policies, not his persona.”

Aronson ought to know. Along with his mentor, Stanford University scholar Claude Steele, Aronson is a leading expert on “stereotype threat,” which refers to the tendency of people to fare less well on tests when they fear their efforts will confirm a negative stereotype about their racial or gender group. He says it will take more than “one highly visible African-American” to make the black-achievement gap go away.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.