Four-Year, Nationwide Study Sharp Race andGender Differences in Incidence of ''AcademicDisidentification'

December 01, 1997

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- African American boys, compared with whites, Hispanics and African American girls, are ''particularly and perhaps uniquely'' vulnerable to ''academic disidentification,'' the phenomenon in which success or failure in school ceases to matter to the student. The finding comes from a four-year study of nearly 25,000 high school students across the United States and is reported in the December issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The study, by doctoral candidate Jason W. Osborne, MA, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, supports some (but not all) of the theories of Stanford University psychologist Claude M. Steele, Ph.D., who first proposed the concept of academic disidentification as a form of self-defense against expectations of poor academic performance.

Data for the study were drawn from the ongoing National Education Longitudinal Study, which was begun in 1988 and has been following nearly 25,000 students since the eighth grade. The students' grades, level of academic achievement and level of overall self-esteem were measured when they were in the eighth grade, in the 10th grade and again in the 12th grade. According to the author, the correlations between self-esteem and achievement scores and self-esteem and grades provided a measure of the students' degree of academic identification or disidentification: self-esteem rising or falling with grades and achievement scores would indicate stronger academic identification; self-esteem remaining the same or rising while grades and achievement scores fell would indicate academic disidentification.

Over the course of the study, there were few substantial changes in the relationship between self-esteem and achievement scores, except for African American boys. For this group, these correlations declined dramatically.

Looking at the correlations between grades and self-esteem, all groups except for Hispanic girls showed decreasing correlations between 10th and 12th grades. ''However,'' Osborne says, ''only African American boys' correlations showed a dramatic and significant decrease over time, dropping from highly significant (and the equivalent in magnitude to the other groups) at eighth grade to not significantly different from zero by 12th grade.''

While Osborne's findings support Dr. Steele's theories as they apply to African American males, there was little support for the idea that African American girls are similarly affected and even less to support the idea that others from socially disadvantaged backgrounds -- such as many Hispanics -- would also tend to disidentify with academics. There was also no evidence that girls disidentified in traditionally male content areas such as math and science.

The researcher notes that ''Hispanic girls were the only group that became more identified with academics as they progressed through their academic careers, a surprising finding in light of the social disadvantages they face, while African American girls, who also face social disadvantages, did not. Finding out why this might be may provide the key to improving identification of students in general, and African Americans in particular.''

Article: ''Race and Academic Disidentification'' by Jason W. Osborne, MA, State University of New York at Buffalo, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 89, No. 4.

American Psychological Association

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