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“Slaying Ghosts in the Room:” Identity Contingencies, Teacher Licensure Testing Events, and African American Preservice Teachers

by Emery Petchauer - 2014

Background: In 41 states, students must pass the “basic skills” portion of their licensure exam before they can be admitted into a teacher education program. Because African American test takers are roughly half as likely to pass basic skills exams on their first attempt compared to White test takers, this portion of the licensure exam is a key gatekeeper to the field and directly shapes the racial diversity of the profession. Researchers generally frame this problem in one of two opposing ways: (a) by locating the cause in skill and knowledge deficiencies of test takers or (b) by locating the cause in the cultural bias of standardized test instruments. This study looks beyond these two polarized views to conceptualize the licensure exam as a testing event that includes a nexus of cognitive and affective processes beyond the specific skills the test is designed to measure.

Focus of Study: The study examined the subjective and social psychological ways African American test takers experience teacher licensure testing events. This study was guided by the following research questions: (a) How do African American preservice teachers experience the licensure testing event? (b) How does race become a salient aspect of the testing event experience for African American preservice teachers? The study drew from the social psychological constructs of identity contingencies and situational cues to analyze students’ experiences in the testing event.

Setting and Participants: Participants in this study were 22 African American preservice teachers attending a predominantly and historically Black institution in the northeastern United States. Each of the participants took the paper format basic skills exam in either the spring 2009 or spring 2010 national administration.

Research Design: Drawing from culturally sensitive research practice, this study used a qualitative case study research design to explore test takers’ experiences in the testing event.

Findings/Conclusions: Findings illustrate how the licensure testing event can become a racialized experience for some participants through (a) interactions with test proctors and site administrators before and during examinations and (b) actions of other test takers that inadvertently signaled racial stereotypes about test preparation, intelligence, and character. Racialized experiences for participants were not based upon any specific test questions or content. Findings are discussed in light of previous research to suggest that these experiences have the capacity to produce a host of cognitive and affective states that undermine performance.

The problem is that the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation. It gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation . . . you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group. (Steele, 2010, p. 111; emphasis in original)

When we were all on the bus and going to take the Praxis exam, I was comfortable and relaxed. But when we actually got there and I saw how many Caucasian [i.e., White] students were there, it was kind of intimidating. Because I didn’t expect it to be majority Caucasian students. I expected us to be the majority. But we were the minority. And I was like, “Ok.” It was kind of intimidating. It was like, “Wow, I don’t think I’m gonna do as well as they are.” And they were sitting there, and they had their books and stuff all studying before.” And I was like, “Wow, ok.” (Amade, African American preservice teacher)

Teacher licensure examinations in the United States are critical junctures at which candidates either become or do not become licensed teachers. In addition to successfully completing an accredited teacher education program that includes courses and hours of fieldwork, states also require teacher candidates to pass a combination of “basic skills” (i.e., literacy and mathematics), subject area, and pedagogical knowledge tests. In most states, the basic skills tests are admission requirements into teacher education programs—both undergraduate and post-baccalaureate. Most states use Praxis, a series of tests created by Educational Testing Service (ETS) for these purposes (Educational Testing Service, 2009) or other similar state-specific tests developed by other organizations such as Pearson (D’Agostino & Powers, 2009). These tests and their functions are not limited to the United States, as England uses the privately administered QTS Skills Test for similar purposes (National College for Teaching and Leadership, 2011).

One idea that is often associated with teacher licensure exams is race. By the term race, I refer to a socially constructed idea and demographic category and not a set of genetic traits.1 Research by ETS has illustrated that score discrepancies exist most distinctly along the lines of race with disproportionate numbers of African American test takers failing the Praxis exam compared to their White counterparts (Gitomer, Brown, & Bonett, 2011; Gitomer & Latham, 2000; Nettles, Scatton, Steinberg, & Tyler, 2011). Findings from Nettles et al. (2011) are illuminating and precise. The researchers found that between 2005 and 2009, in the 28 states that use Praxis for a basic skills test, the passing percentages for first-time test takers according to African American and White demographics, respectively, are as follows: reading: 40.7/81.5; writing: 44.2/79.5; mathematics: 36.8/78.2. When controlling for other variables including undergraduate grade point average, selectivity of institution, and parent’s education level, the researchers concluded that African American test takers “were still likely to have a score seven points lower on the Praxis I Mathematics test compared to their White contemporaries” (Nettles et al., 2011, p. 48). Beyond these disparities found by ETS studies, research has illustrated that teacher licensure exams do not function uniformly across race but have different levels of predictive validity for different racial groups (Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010). These passing percentages have direct connections to the percentages of African American teachers in the United States. According to Feistritzer (2011), African Americans comprised 7% of the teacher population in the United States in 2011 while they were 14% of the population nationally (U. S. Census, 2011). The teaching force remains predominantly White at approximately 84% while student populations become more racially diverse. While there are clear benefits of having racial matches between teachers and students, all students benefit from a diverse teaching force because it exposes them to diverse representations of knowledge and cultural frameworks.

What are the different ways to explain these gaps in passing scores? There are two general responses among researchers. One response locates cause primarily in the preparation and skills of the test taker (e.g., Gitomer et al., 2011; Nettles et al., 2011). According to this explanation, score discrepancies are a product of different skills, knowledge, and schooling experiences. Consequently, basic skills teacher licensure exams are useful signals because they indicate which teacher candidates are deficient in skills and knowledge and are thus less likely to complete a teacher preparation program (Gitomer et al., 2011). Historical and structural inequalities that create lower quality schooling experiences are a large producer of these score gaps and completion rates, although researchers in this first response seldom foreground this point. In a different vein, other researchers locate the problem in the testing instrument. They conclude that the instruments are culturally biased, oppressive, and inequitable obstacles to increasing the numbers of teachers of color in schools (Bennett, McWhorter, & Kuykendall, 2006; Flippo, 2003; Memory, Coleman, & Watkins, 2003; Mikitovics & Crehan, 2002). The conclusions of Bennett et al. (2006) after studying African American and Hispanic students’ perspectives of the test are particularly direct. The researchers call the exam in its current uses “an inequitable [teacher education program] admissions tool” (Bennett et al., 2006, p. 567).

In each of these polarized conclusions, researchers focus on the ostensible relationship between the test and the test taker. More specifically, these conclusions deal with the content and cultural framework of the test instrument as it relates to the skills, knowledge, preparation, and cultural framework that students bring to the test. The relationship between tests and test takers is an important site of inquiry, but this analytical lens overlooks a vital body of information that is also relevant to licensure test performance. This body of information deals with the subjective and social psychological ways test takers actually experience exams, often in light of larger historical, structural, and educational inequalities of which test takers are aware. In other words, I argue that it is necessary to look beyond scores, test content, and other correlates in order to focus on the experiences of African American test takers. A narrow focus on scores (or score gaps) alone contributes to the problematic trend in teacher development research that has overlooked the experiences of teachers of color as necessary starting points (Castro, 2010; Sleeter, 2001). This microlevel analytical framework is necessary to generate new insights about why this passing gap exists and, in turn, understand how to empower more African American teacher candidates to join the ranks of passers. This different and necessary analytical frame is based upon a reconceptualization of the exam as a testing event, a concept that I unpack in the following section.  

In this article, based upon the need for this new frame, I take the testing event experiences of African American2 preservice teachers as the starting points of inquiry rather than test content, scores, or other variables that have been considered. I report findings from a two-year qualitative study that explored the experiences of a group of African American preservice teachers during their teacher licensure testing events. This study was guided by the following questions:


How do African American preservice teachers experience the licensure testing event?


How does race become a salient aspect of the testing event experience for African American preservice teachers?

Drawing from the social psychological constructs of identity contingencies and situational cues (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002), the findings illustrate how the licensure testing event can become a racialized experience for some students. By the phrase racialized experience, I refer to situations and interactions in which one’s race becomes conscious and salient. This happened through (a) interactions with test proctors and site administrators before and during examinations and (b) actions of other test takers that inadvertently signaled racial stereotypes about test preparation, intelligence, and character. Perhaps surprisingly, these racialized experiences for participants were not based upon any specific test questions or content. Overall from data, I argue that teacher licensure testing events have the capacity to be racialized events for preservice teachers. From these findings, I outline practical efforts that can alleviate some of these undesirable effects.



Because of my interest in how African American preservice teachers experience licensure exams, one concept central to this study is the testing event. Analogous to an athletic event, this concept directs attention to important elements that are not captured when researchers limit analyses to test content or test environment. A testing event includes more than the actual test in a booklet or on a computer screen, and it includes more than what some would consider the test environment (e.g., test site atmosphere, possible distractions, proctors; Walters, Lee, & Trapani, 2004). A testing event includes interactions with proctors, site administrators, and other test takers before and during exams, but like the proverbial “big race” for a runner, it includes a nexus of cognitive and affective processes beyond the specific skills the test is designed to measure. These processes include self-regulation (Molden & Dweck, 2006), attribution of success and failures to different causes (Weiner, 1986), appraisal of one’s own abilities (Bandura, 1986), interpretations of performance based upon theories of intelligence (Dweck, 2006), and social psychological calculations about one’s identities (Steele, 2010). Like a runner preparing for a marathon, many students prepare for professional licensure exams in various fields, literally, as events. They mark them on calendars, devise a training plan, seek accountability for this training if necessary, and train cognitively and affectively. Most importantly, they must perform well on “game day” when many supporters are expecting and hoping for success. The notion that there are a variety of factors that can affect a test taker’s response to test items and related efforts to account for these factors can be traced back to generalizability theory (Cronbach, Gleser, Nanda, & Rajaratnam, 1972). However, the concept of the testing event and the related athletic comparison, although atypical in education research, draws attention to important cognitive, affective, and social process about tests that have been overlooked by the testing community (Stricker, 2008) and the educational research community more broadly.

The extensive body of empirical research around identity and stereotype threat, particularly among college students (Steele et al., 2002), also points to the importance of the testing event. Stereotype threat refers to performance situations that put people at risk of confirming as true a negative stereotype about a social group to which they belong (Steele & Aronson, 1995; see also Steele, 2010). This social group can be based upon markers such as race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, professional occupation, geographical origin, and others. Research in this area has consistently demonstrated that stereotypes related to identity markers such as race (Aronson, Lustina, Good, & Keough, 1999; Davis, Aronson, & Steele, 2008; Steele & Aronson, 1995), gender (Adams, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, & Steele, 2006; Brown & Pinel, 2003; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999), economic class (Croizet & Claire, 1998), and other markers can undermine performance in a variety of situations. In recent years, this research has expanded beyond the threat of stereotypes to focus on other judgments, opportunities, restrictions, and treatments that people suspect might be present in a situation. These are called identity contingencies (Steele et al., 2002), which I elucidate below. As a whole, this research has demonstrated that to understand a performance situation, a researcher’s analytical lens must encompass much more than the actual test and the testing environment.


Although stereotype and identity threat research has consistently demonstrated their presence and effect, the bulk of this work has taken place in controlled (i.e., laboratory) experiments where researchers have manipulated the threats that people ostensibly experience. As noted in a review by Stricker (2008), one consequential dilemma is if people experience these same threats in authentic (i.e., operationalized, applied) test settings. In other words, do people experience the same kinds of identity threats in real testing events, and do these experiences affect performance? Due to practical, methodological, and ethical barriers, researchers have been unable to conduct controlled studies in authentic testing events.3 However, Cullen, Hardison, and Sackett (2004) and Cullen, Waters, and Sackett (2006) approximated this control through a differential prediction paradigm design. Both studies found no statistically significant differences that would suggest the presence of a threat.

Cullen et al. (2004) noted the possibility that threats must be cued in the test environment prior to testing (as has been the case in controlled settings; e.g., Croizet & Claire, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 1995) for threats to affect a test taker’s performance in an authentic setting. In this vein, Walters et al. (2004) tested if mismatches between test takers and proctors according to race or gender would associate with decreased performance on the GRE, thus suggesting that the mismatch cued stereotypes threats. The researchers also determined the roles that other features of the testing environment such as size, activity, and social atmosphere (e.g., friendly or formal, levels of disruptions) as reported by site administrators had on test-taker performance.

The researchers found that a race or gender mismatch between test takers and proctors did not relate to a significant test score difference. This suggests that test takers of color (and women) did not experience identity-threatening stereotypes based upon the presence of a proctor of a different ethnicity or gender. In terms of other environmental variables, the researchers found that larger test centers were related to higher scores for African American and White test takers, perhaps because test takers benefited from a sense of anonymity (and thus protection from identity threats) in larger environments.

One important limitation of Walters et al. (2004), however, is that the cuing of an identity threat in their study hinged upon two features: (a) the mere presence of a proctor of a different race (or gender) and (b) general characteristics of the testing site as reported by the site administrator. Regarding this first feature, it is reasonable to assume there is a legion of other possible means of interactions during a testing event that could cue race or another potentially threatening identity marker. The actual interactions between test takers and proctors (regardless of any racial mismatch), site administrators, other test takers would be natural stating points, as would the constellations of other unforeseen variables test takers might experience. Regarding this second feature, test takers’ subjective experiences of the testing environment and event, rather than the impressions of the site administrator, would also be natural starting points to identify cues and threats. Walters et al. (2004) note that “a more precise account of each test taker’s experience may have revealed results more similar to that of laboratory settings” (p. 36) and these are reasonable starting points for this “more precise account.”


Given my focus on the subjective testing event, the construct of social identity contingencies (Steele et al., 2002) is important to this study. Social identity contingencies are “possible judgments, stereotypes, opportunities, restrictions, and treatments that are tied to one’s social identity in a given setting” (Purdie-Vaughns, Steele, Davies, & Ditlmann, 2008, p. 615). Social identity contingencies can be positive or negative, and they can relate to people’s race, gender, professional occupation, sexual orientation, and other makers. When identity contingencies are negative, they can be the proverbial “ghosts in the room” that shape how people subjectively experience an event and act in it when they suspect these contingencies to be present. For example, one contingency related to teacher licensure exams might be the idea that African American students do not perform well on standardized tests. A stereotypical idea, this notion can operate as a contingency with many different effects. For example, Petchauer (in press) found that this idea can be cued by the demographic survey prior to a computerized licensure exam for some African American test takers. In response to this identity contingency, one African American test taker, in an anxious moment, registered that she was White on the demographic survey and experienced feelings of shame and conciliatory hard work after passing the exam. Some other effects beyond Petchauer (in press) might include a student working extra hard to prove the idea wrong or a student avoiding a situation altogether where (due to the possibility of underperformance) she might confirm the stereotype as true. Different identities become salient in different situations. Consequently, an identity that is salient or made visible in one setting might not be salient in another.

The importance of social identity contingencies for this study is not to examine whether the embedded ideas are objectively true in a situation. What is important, rather, is when people believe, expect, or suspect contingencies to be present (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008). This focus on people’s perceptions (rather than the objective reality) is important because what people believe or suspect to be true of themselves and the world are generally more powerful influences on their behavior compared to what is objectively true (Bandura, 1986). As touched on above, the extensive body of research on stereotype threat supports this focus on the subjective experience over the objective reality too. In this study, social identity contingencies directed me to examine how ideas associated with race became salient aspects of the testing event. As discussed above, this event included not only the act of taking the exam but subevents at the testing center too (e.g., registration process, interactions with other test takers, instructions from proctors).

Also important to my analysis are situational cues. As outlined by Purdie-Vaughns et al. (2008), situational cues are physical, ideological, or social indicants about what identity contingencies might be present in a setting. Situational cues convey threats and contingencies. With roots in earlier sociological theory (e.g., Goffman, 1971), “any object, event, person, or place that activates a particular social identity can be a situational cue” (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008, p. 616). For example, few students of color in a high school advanced placement course (a situational cue) could signal to a Latina student that the other students in the class might not expect people “like her” to have the skills to be successful in the class (a social identity contingency). Awareness of this contingency would be one element the student would have to negotiate in this setting. In this study, the concept of situational cues led me to focus upon how African American preservice teachers processed micro-interactions and environmental features of the testing event and how these cues might be linked to social identity contingencies.

Finally, it is important to note that the large body of empirical research that has employed the constructs of stereotype threats, identity contingencies, and situational cues has been large scale in design and quantitative in nature. As I discussed above, this work primarily has measured if and how these exist in situations according to different identity markers and their subsequent implications. In this qualitative study, I use these constructs in a different way. I use them as a theoretical lens to interpret students’ subjective experiences in teacher licensure testing events. While using these psychological constructs in this qualitative design is less common, this study is not the first of such instances. Milner and Hoy (2003) used stereotype threat along with self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997) to explore how, for one African American teacher in a White working space, proving stereotypes wrong (when present) was an essential element to achieving a mastery experience. Milner and Hoy used these psychological constructs to interpret subjective experiences, and I use identity contingencies and situational cues in the same way in this study.  


The methods and procedures outlined in this section were guided by tenants of culturally sensitive research (Tillman, 2001). Tillman outlined that such a research approach uses culturally congruent research methods that are qualitative in nature such as interviews, observations, and participant observations that center on the holistic dimension of African Americans’ experiences. With regard to the focus of this study, I was concerned with participants’ thoughts, emotions or “feelings,” and overall experiences with the testing event—not simply their scores on the exam. Tillman (2001) also highlights that culturally sensitive data interpretations “position experiential knowledge as legitimate, appropriate, and necessary for analyzing, understanding, and reporting data” (p. 6). Guideposts such as these informed the more detailed techniques I describe below.


Participants in this study were 22 African American preservice teachers (five men, 17 women) attending a predominantly and historically Black institution in the northeastern United States that I call “Douglass College” (a pseudonym). Each of the participants took the paper format basic skills exam in either the spring 2009 or spring 2010 national administration. Participants were interviewed within one week after they took the exam so that the testing event was fresh in their memory and knowledge of their scores (which were not yet available) would not shape their interpretation of the testing event after the fact.

Participants were randomly selected from a larger pool of 50 students who had taken their basic skills certification exam during these semesters. It was the intent to interview each test taker, but this was not possible given the one-week time window necessary to preserve the conditions described above. Consequently, I used the Microsoft Excel RAND function to sort test takers into interview and noninterview groups, and scheduling permitted for 22 students in the interview group to participate in the study. I use pseudonyms for students’ names and other proper nouns throughout this manuscript.

Participants had a mean GPA of 3.0 (SD = 0.46) and had spent a mean 4.53 (SD = 1.8) semesters in college during the semester they took their basic skills licensure exam. Participants were seeking certification in a variety of areas including early childhood education and secondary education content areas. Table 1 illustrates the first-time passing percentages of participants on Praxis I compared to those of other African American test takers between 2005 and 2009 as reported by Nettles et al. (2011). From this table, it is clear that the sample in this study and the population reported in Nettles et al. (2011) have nearly identical passing percentages. Participants who passed on their first attempt did so through a variety of preparation levels. Some easily passed with little to no preparation, and others prepared diligently before the exam in order to pass. Although this study is concerned with the passing gap and closing it,4 details such as these are important to include in order to avoid an unseen danger that a study such as this could inadvertently reproduce inaccurate deficit and stereotypical assumption about African American preservice teachers and standardized tests (see Milner, 2007).

Table 1. Comparison of Passing Percentages for African American First-Time Test Takers





Study participants




African American test takers 2005-2009




During this study, the university had activities in place to help students prepare for licensure exams in a centralized way. The university provided voluntary tutoring sessions for students an hour and a half, once a week, outside of classes. The university also had computerized preparation software with sample problems and tests available to students. Approximately half of the participants attended the tutoring sessions and used the software in some capacity during the semester they took their licensure exam, although doing so was not a condition for participating in this study. Each semester over the course of two years, the institution also transported students by bus to a test center for the paper-based exam.


Focus Group Interviews

Data collection took place through three primary techniques. Each participant took part in a semistructured focus group interview within one week after the testing event. I selected this focus group format because it matched the collective aspects of the testing event that included traveling to the site, registering, studying on-site, and sharing experiences between and after sessions. Additionally, as Madriz (2002) has outlined, the format allows for collective testimony and sharing of racialized experiences, which is consistent with the purpose of this study. A total of five focus group interviews were conducted by myself or a second interviewer to control for interviewer bias, which I discuss below. Each lasted between 60 and 75 min and was made up of between three and six students.

Appendix A outlines the questions asked in the focus group interviews, some of which were adopted from Bennett et al. (2006) and their study of Black and Latino preservice teachers’ experiences with Praxis. Of central importance to the purpose of this study were Questions 2 and 6, which were directed at the testing event. Each of these questions was printed on a large poster-size Post-It and stuck to the wall. The question was read and explained to participants, and then they were each given a marker to write their responses on it. Participants then discussed in the focus group the reasons for their responses. In this way, their individual experiences served as the entry point to the collective experience. With these key questions, great care was taken to avoid response bias, for example, by cuing participants to think about race in the testing event. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, resulting in 87 pages of single-spaced text.

Participant Observation at Testing Events

I also collected participant-observation data while I rode in university transportation with students to the site and interacted with them during test registration, over breaks between sessions, and after the exams had finished. In these settings, I utilized three different organizing forms of field notes outlined by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995, pp. 84–99): sketches, episodes, and tales. Table 2 delineates between these three forms and explains what each of them directed me to examine during the testing event. In sum from two testing events, I recorded seven sketches, seven episodes, and two tales that summarized each testing event.

Table 2. Field Note Formats



Focus During Testing Event


Brief segment that unifies descriptive details about a setting, an individual, or a single incident. Lacks consequential action and any full characterization of people. Normally one paragraph.

Setting on bus while driving to testing site

Observable demographics at the test site before and after sessions


Brief incident that does not extend over a long period of time or involve many characters. A continuous action or interaction that makes a unified entry. Normally one or two paragraphs.

Interactions between test takers

Interactions between test takers and other people at test site

Interactions between researcher and test takers


A series of interconnected or related episodes that describe the same people or similar activities. Often entail progression and development over time without imposing narrative, literary structure.  Many paragraphs to pages.

Full testing events as constructed from episodes


While participant observation is an atypical method of data collection for a social psychological study or one on test takers’ experiences, I did this to (a) capture aspects of the testing event that might connect with focus group interview data and (b) triangulate participants’ claims about situational cues during the testing event. Thus, creating sketches, episodes, and tales from the testing events produced an additional source of data to understand test takers’ experiences as well as seek alternate and disconfirming interpretations of events during interviews. I refer to these data where relevant in the findings section below.   

Conversational Interviews

I also conducted conversational interviews (Patton, 2001) at the test site with participants in order to understand some of their thoughts and emotions there. These interviews, which are impromptu and expository conversations, did not follow a predetermined set of questions but rather the progression of intentional but free-flowing conversation. Some questions that initiated these conversational interviews included, “How are you feeling about the exam?” (before the exam) and, “How do you think it went?” (after the exam). Although a systematic sampling technique is not normally used for these interviews, I had them with each participant either individually or in groups at the test site. Data from these interviews were integrated into sketches, episodes, and tales.

Experiencing the Exam

I also took the exam on two occasions during administration dates that participants were not attending in order to obtain a general experience of what happens during the actual test sessions that I was not allowed to enter during participant observation. I neither collected nor analyzed data from these testing events because these were obviously different testing events with a different set of proctors, fellow test takers, and other variables. Nevertheless, taking the exam twice helped give me a general experiential framework in which to situate participants’ comments about micro-events that take place behind closed doors at every session (e.g., proctors reading instructions, giving time notifications).


Data analysis began with a provisional start list of terms (Miles & Huberman, 1994) to identify references to race in the focus group interview data. This list included standard terms that directly refer to race (e.g., African American, Black, Caucasian, White, Asian, etc.) as well as indirect terms (e.g., diverse, urban, suburban) that can be used as proxies or indexical expressions for race (Hanks, 1990). Interview transcripts were read to identify these terms. During this stage of analysis, it became apparent that participants also used terms such as Douglass Students, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the pronouns we and us in some contexts to signify race (e.g., “We are from [Douglass College]. We are already diverse when we go out into the world”). Terms such as these were added to the list, and transcripts were reanalyzed by using key words in context to identify instances in which these pronouns were used to refer to race. This first step of analysis resulted in 94 occurrences of such terms referring to race among the five focus group interviews.

The second stage of analysis consisted of open coding to explore which references to race connected to identity contingencies participants suspected were present during the testing event. In this way, a mere reference to race in the previous stage of analysis did not constitute an identity contingency. Rather, the term had to link to “possible judgments, stereotypes, opportunities, restrictions, and treatments” (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008, p. 615) about African Americans in participants’ experiences at the testing event. This process resulted in eight different identity contingencies that I then merged into three larger codes centering on standardized tests, intelligence, and character.

I applied the same coding procedures to identify the situational cues in the testing event. This resulted in seven types of situational cues. Because these situational cues are contextual and related to specific details and subjective perceptions of them, I used my field notes to triangulate participants’ claims about specific situational cues during the testing event. In this way, field notes were not analyzed and coded to build claims about participants’ experiences. Instead, they were an additional source of data to support, question, or add context to the ways that participants experienced the testing event. I then merged the seven types of situational cues into two larger codes centering on (a) interactions with proctors and administrators and (b) presence and actions of other test takers. Appendixes B through D illustrate the analysis procedures outlined in this section through a sample interview transcript, the reduction of codes, and the link between data sources and codes for situational cues.


As a White male of a different racialized experience compared to that of participants, foregrounding some of my own cultural knowledge and positionality helps increase the trustworthiness of the study (Milner, 2007; Tillman, 2002). Like most people, I can cite examples in which I have experienced identity threats according to my race and other identity markers, but standardized tests have never been a racialized experience for me. I was nervous while taking licensure exams during my own certification process years ago, but this nervousness was not related to any race-based identity threat. Despite this experience, I do not take a race-less or color-blind approach to this project. I foreground the potentially racialized nature of the testing event in the design and theoretical frames of the study.

Throughout this study, I was a researcher but also a professor who was invested in students’ successes, both generally and specifically related to licensure exams. One of my main points of investment was organizing preparation activities for all students to attend free of charge. Sixteen of the 22 participants had been my students in department courses either before or during the study; however, their participation in the study or performance on Praxis was not tied to any course. While it is not possible to know precisely how my presence at the testing event affected the quality of the experience for participants, it likely added an additional layer of comfort and support for some of them. I make this tentative claim because on two occasions, students presented me with cards the week after the testing event thanking me for accompanying them on those very early mornings.

While foregrounding my positionality increases the cultural sensitivity and trustworthiness of this study (Milner, 2007; Tillman, 2002), there were also design features for these purposes. The focus of the study along with the race difference between participants and me had the potential to create interviewer bias wherein participants would be less open to talk about racialized experiences. Consequently, an African American woman research partner who was acquainted with participants conducted two of the five focus group interviews according to identical protocol. I conducted an audit to detect for interviewer bias by examining the instances in which participants referenced race across our two sets of interviews. Participants discussed race in each focus group interview, thus leading me to conclude that interviewer bias due to the race of the interviewer was not present.

Participation in this study was voluntary and not attached to any course or grade to prevent demand bias. Six participants (three whose voices appear most frequently in the findings and three whose do not) completed member checks, thus supporting my analysis and representation of their experiences. The triangulated means of data collection (i.e., focus group interviews, conversational interviews, and field notes at testing events) also supports the validity of findings, although a primary limitation is that data analysis was conducted by a single researcher. I discuss the remaining limitations in the appropriate section below.


In this findings section, I draw from data to illustrate the ways that race became a salient aspect of the testing event for students via identity threats and contingencies. In each of these instances, I cover the specific situational cue(s) that students identified and how they linked this cue to a larger identity contingency or threat. I also situate these results within a discussion of previous findings about threats in standardized test environments and some of the possible effects.


One situational cue that conveyed identity contingencies came from other test takers and their actions during the testing event. Amade introduced one of these as she reflected upon taking Praxis the previous week and possible reasons for different performance levels between races in general. In her focus group interview, she spoke about getting up at 6:30 a.m. and riding with approximately 20 other test takers to a nearby university to take the exam.

Amade: When we were all on the bus and going to take the Praxis exam, I was comfortable and relaxed. But when we actually got there and I saw how many Caucasian [i.e., White] students were there, it was kind of intimidating because I didn’t expect it to be majority Caucasian students. I expected us to be the majority. But we were the minority. And I was like, “Ok.” It was kind of intimidating. It was like, “Wow, I don’t think I’m gonna do as well as they are.” And they were sitting there, and they had their books and stuff all studying before.” And I was like, “Wow, ok.”

Author: Did other people feel that way when we showed up?

Others: Yeah.

At the testing site during this administration, there was indeed a mixture of test takers in terms of race as well as age, and some of them had preparation books open to complete some last-minute studying as they waited to be admitted to test rooms. Amade and others observed that these students who were studying were White (i.e., Caucasian5) and this made Amade and others intimidated or nervous and think they were not going to do well.

It is possible that any student, regardless of race, might feel nervous and less confident upon seeing other test takers studying in this situation. Any person could compare oneself to another person and subsequently change the appraisal of his or her own abilities. However, at least part of these effects upon Amade and others could be attributed to an identity contingency that some African American students do not exert the same effort studying and preparing for tests compared to other students. The continuation of their exchange below illustrates how the scene was racialized due to this identity contingency that students were aware of.

Natalie: I do agree with them, but I think it’s a lack of preparation. We don’t really prepare ourselves to take it. We just, “Oh let me go take this test” when like, we should’ve had our books too. So I think it’s a lack of preparation. [Emphasis added]

Jasmine: I think it’s lack of preparation because we don’t study as much as everyone, like as much as we should. We just go in there unprepared and thinking we’re gonna pass and get mad at the end when we know we failed because we didn’t prepare.  

Natalie: People try to put you down—you get put down by like stereotypes and stuff if you let it. If you don’t let it get to you, you will be fine. Everyone is just as smart as everyone else. I believe that we don’t put as much effort and study time as other races do. And I learned that in class when my professor gave us statistics. But we don’t, we really don’t. And I think that if we did, our test scores could probably be a lot better. A lot better. I believe what Jasmine said, we use stuff like that as an excuse. There’s no excuse, we’re just as smart as everyone else. We just have to put more effort into it.

Evident in this exchange is a stereotypical (and factually ungrounded) judgment that some African American students do not study and prepare for tests as much as students of other races. This is a judgment that many students in this study were aware of from friends who espoused it, media that reported it, and even professors who discussed it in class. Natalie even stated that she learned it in a class.6 Because students were aware of (or held) this idea, seeing White students studying before the test activated this set of beliefs and related identity contingency. For students like Natalie who were not just aware of the idea but also endorsed it, they were likely more susceptible to the threat (Schmader & Barquissau, 2004).

There are important details to this scene not captured in the student exchange that help further unpack the inner workings. Prior to entering the test site, some of Amade’s classmates also had been studying during the bus ride to the site—an important detail I recorded in a field note sketch. Additionally, contrary to Natalie’s italicized claim above (i.e., “We should have had our books too”), many of her classmates also brought preparation materials to study between tests. Similarly, also recorded in a field note sketch, there were also White students in the lobby who were not studying before the exam. These data, if noted by students, could have been interpreted to draw much different conclusions about test preparation and counter the identity threat. The fact that students did not recognize these more objective data illustrates how powerful cues and identity contingencies can be upon students’ interpretations of a testing event. The identity contingencies seemed to create a selective filter through which students saw and interpreted data at the test site.

This reaction upon seeing White students studying in the lobby should be seen in context with Walters et al. (2004) and other research that has examined test scores for evidence of threats (e.g., Cullen et al., 2004; Cullen et al., 2006). To recall, Walters et al. (2004) found no evidence of threat when test takers’ proctor was of a different race. The data above illustrate that what can cue an identity contingency is not simply the race of another test taker or person at the testing center. The cue is when an observed action coincides with a potential threat. Stated another way, the mere presence of someone of a different race did not signal an identity contingency, as it has in laboratory settings (e.g., Croizet & Claire, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 1995). In fact, students in other focus groups indicated that they did not have these kinds of thoughts during other semesters when White students were present (but not seen studying). It was the actions of the White students at the testing center that connected to an identity threat about studying for the participants.


On a different testing date, another situational cue that made race salient in the testing event was an encounter with the test site coordinator. As had been the case every semester, the group arrived at the testing center together. As the organizer for the group, I had made the decision after consulting with students that this semester they would take the test at a different site because of environmental distractions (e.g., cold temperature, construction noises, lack of clocks) at our previous site. Consequently, this was the students’ first time as a group at this host institution. Upon entering the building, it was not clear where the testing rooms were and the alphabetical assignment to these rooms. The group (including me) was confused, and the students together tried to decipher the directions in small print taped to the wall. This was when the site coordinator (a White woman who neither the students nor I initially saw) stepped up in front of the students and attempted to give directions.

The following exchange from the focus group interview illustrates the weighted interactions that ensued. In the excerpt below, I use conversational analysis notations in order to convey the emotions and synergy among students in this critical part of the interview.    

Author: So a lot of people are referencing the “first comment,” quote-unquote, when we first came in, right? What was that first comment when you first came in? The first thing that kind of set it off like that?

Renee: Alright well let me tell you what I heard=

Alesha: =“Do I have to read it for you?”=

Harrison: =Yea:h. We were looking at the schedule trying to figure out where to go=

Renee: =And then when one of our students mentioned, “O:h so, we’re supposed to go here,” she says, “Oh, looks like you’re getting an A in your class,” [or something.

Others:                                                           [Yea:h

Tamara:                                                          [I heard that.

Author: Now I get it. So was that the comment?=

Alesha: =Right then=

Renee: =That was the comment. And then after the comment it was, “L:et me explain. L:et me, let me read it for you,” you know=

Alesha: =And how she held her hands!= [i.e., arms extended, palms facing students]

Renee: [Ye:s! She did, OK!

Others: [YE:S!

Author: She held out her arms in front of her?

Renee: Ye:s!

Author: I do [remember that now.

Harrison:     [She never looked at us either=

Renee: =She didn’t. She didn’t. She never looked at us with her eyes.

Harrison: When she was speaking the whole time, she looked like straight ahead past us.

Shantel: That’s a mess. That really is a mess.

Renee: And she was like, “Let me help you all out. These are the sections.”

Others: She did do that.

Shantel:7 How was her tone? Like how did she say it?

Tamara: Sarcastic.

Renee: Her tone was very sarcastic. It was very noticeable that she was very like prejudiced. I also think um, it hurt me more because some people didn’t catch it. They were still standing there asking.8 And I’m like, she is really disrespecting us. Let’s walk away. Whoever was next to me, like I don’t even remember, I was like “No let’s go. We gonna go this way.” I was trying to guide people because we’re supposed to help one another. And a lot of times we don’t. We are all about ourselves. We’re supposed to help one another. That situation was just ridiculous. And people did not get it. Like some people did not even get that she was trying to play us [i.e., disrespect].9

There were three cues in the episode that students recounted. These cues were tone of voice, lack of eye contact, and body language (i.e., arms extended, palms facing students). Naturally, what the administrator said in word was also important but more powerful was her nonlinguistic communication. While these may seem like small details to some, a more comprehensive communication system and thus attention to small details like these can be characteristic of African American communities and be salient aspects of this experience (Smitherman, 1985).

Regardless of one’s race, any group of students in this situation could be irritated by the site administrators’ actions. However, similar to the image White students studying in the lobby, these cues conveyed to the test takers identity contingency about some African American students. In the following exchange, students illustrate how these cues conveyed contingencies about some African American students, their literacy practices and intellectual abilities, and predominately Black institutions.

Renee: I always look at both sides ‘cause like I said, I’m very fair on cultural differences as far as Black and White. But I believe—I was disappointed in the way her approach was because it was very negative. But at the same time, we’re college students. We are from [Douglass College]. We are already diverse when we go out into the world.10 We are coming all from an African American school. Being as though we dealt with a lot of stuff as far as history and stuff like that, a lot of time as students and as African Americans, we don’t want to follow directions, and we don’t want to read. So it was a lot of people that approached it like, “What do we have to do?” Read it. That’s it, read it. [Others agree.] Even though it looks—read it! Just read it. That’s why I walked over there and I was quiet, especially when you’re around White people anyway because they already think of you as not intelligent. They already think of you as, “Oh she ain’t gonna succeed, or he ain’t gonna succeed because of the color of our skin.” So one thing you don’t want to do, you don’t want to just approach the situation and say, “Oh so what are we supposed to do?” We are intelligent. We are all in college. We all want to be teachers. Look, be quiet first, read it. After you read it, if you don’t understand it, then you ask.

Tamara: I get what Renee’s saying though ‘cause we do have to—we are a common university and there are other HBCUs, so already they are thinking we are not—our education is not good enough. But once we go off to different campuses, it’s like we have know how to uphold ourselves also like with manners ‘cause they already come with a mindset like expecting that we are disrespectful.

In this exchange, students demonstrated awareness of the deficit assumption that some African American students do not read. To be clear, this is not an assumption that students in this exchange held to be true. However, this was a common idea that many students were aware of from previous experiences and elected to discuss during interviews. Related to this idea is that White people might initially look at African Americans as less intelligent, that education at a predominantly Black institution is inadequate compared to other (i.e., predominately White) institutions, and that African Americans are disrespectful.

The ways that the interactions with the administrator activated these threats are important given previous findings. Walters et al. (2004) found that elements of the testing environment aside from its size did not relate to threats (via scores). To recall, the researchers gauged test environment through surveys to site administrators. The data above illustrate that students do experience threats through what could be intended as a helpful action from a site administrator. Walters et al. (2004) also concluded that a large testing site might allow for some anonymity for test takers who might be experience identity threats. In the data above, the students having arrived at the testing center as an entire group and representing their HBCU with sweatshirts, hats, and other items could have made them more likely to think about how other people at the testing center might perceive the group, which was clearly from a well-known regional HBCU. There is nothing wrong with arriving as a group or representing one’s institution, but it seems that these factors made the group identifiable as being from Douglass College—a common HBCU in the area, according to Tamara—and thus in a position to consider how other people might view them through a stereotypical lens and related identity contingencies. As a contrast, if a test taker had arrived not in a large group and not clearly representing an HBCU, it is possible that the test taker would have been less likely to consider how other people at the testing center might view them through a stereotypical lens.11    

Empirical findings also suggest some of the ways that these contingencies about intelligence might have affected participants. Nussbaum and Steele (2007) discuss overefforting, or when people exert additional effort in order to disprove a stereotype or judgment. Conventional logic might conclude that putting additional effort in these ways would increase one’s success. O’Brien and Crandall (2003) found that this outcome can be true when the task at hand is well within one’s skill range and thus easy. However, overefforting can harm performance when the task at hand is challenging and at the threshold of a person’s abilities, particularly when the task (such as a teacher licensure exam) is important to the person (Nussbaum & Steele, 2007). This research, combined with the finding that students did experience identity threats in the setting, suggests that the threats undermined performance.  


Purdie-Vaughns et al. (2008) note that one cue can shape the interpretation of subsequent cues. After “the comment and the look” from the site administrator described in the previous section, there were four subsequent events/elements at the testing center this particular day that students experienced as racialized: (a) the ways that a proctor assigned test takers into seats, which some students thought could be based upon a suspicion that some African American students might cheat; (b) proctors’ enforcement of cellphone policies and acceptance of identification cards; (c) looks that other test takers gave some African American students; and (d) a bizarre episode about locked bathrooms that I discuss below. In light of “the look and the comment” and Purdie-Vaughns et al. (2008), it is reasonable to conclude that this initial cue shaped how students experienced the subsequent events. What also supports this conclusion is that students on this particular test day cited the most cues and contingencies compared to any other group.

The depth of this process is illustrated most clearly by the absurdity of the locked bathroom episode. Between the reading and math tests given in the same session, Renee asked the proctor if she could leave the room to use the bathroom. In my prior times at licensure tests, I normally saw groups of students momentarily dismissed from rooms to quickly use the bathroom during this short interval. The proctor (perhaps confused about the rules) told Renee that she could not use the bathroom between tests; she could only use it during the test once it had begun.12 Renee received directions about where the bathroom was located from the proctor and another test taker who attended the host institution, but when she arrived at the bathroom, it was locked. This meant that she had to quickly find facilities in another building to use, which turned out to be a men’s bathroom. In fact while at the testing center, I encountered her frantically searching for another bathroom and made this into an episode in my field notes. In the following exchange, I attempted to understand why she had introduced this occurrence to the discussion and thus how this strange course of events cued an identity contingency and further racialized the testing event.

Author: If I was in that situation, that would frustrate me, but in your situation—‘cause we’re talking about what type of experiences during the test made you think about cultural differences, or race, or stereotypes, or racism—so was that part of what you are saying?

Renee: The girl that attends that university, she was the one that told me where the bathrooms were. Even the instructor told me where the bathrooms were, and she said they are never locked. Like, I don’t understand why they are locked on the day a Black, African American, dark-skinned person—oh, I was about to go off!—wanna go to the bathroom! I don’t understand! She said it’s always open! It just happened to be locked for me! [laughing; emphasis in original]

Exacerbated, confused, and laughing a bit at the absurdity of the situation, Renee did not rationally conclude that somehow the bathrooms had been locked for her because she is African American or that she had been set up intentionally by the proctor or the other test taker. However, the irony of the situation was not lost on her: That for some reason, as during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the United States, she was not allowed to enter the bathroom and had to go to great lengths to find one she could use. What is important about this situation is not if Renee thought that by some elaborate means she had been kept out of the bathroom because she was African American. What is important is that given the prior cue with the site administrator, even a situation like being sent to a locked bathroom caused her to work within a racialized contingency and negotiate an additional cognitive and affective layer in the testing event.

Like the locked bathroom, some of the identity contingencies that students experienced did not pertain directly to content on the Praxis exam. For example, why would an identity threat about one’s character—sensing suspicion from a proctor about cheating—affect performance on a math or reading test? Why would the absurdity of Jim Crow era bathrooms in the testing center matter at all on a basic skills test? Ben-Zeev, Fein, and Inzlicht (2005) found that threats such as these matter because they affect performance on tasks in other domains. In other words, the effects of an identity threat can extend beyond the specific domain to which it is related.

Tamara demonstrated recognition of these effects as she reflected upon how the group should navigate these kinds of interactions. Below, she alludes to the initial episode with the site administrator, the seat assignments in testing rooms, and what seemed to be selective enforcement of cellphone and ID card policies.

Tamara: I think as far as like the Praxis, they probably take it as serious as we do down there. But on our Praxis day, it should be one of those days you prepare yourself for. But those comments before you take the test, your mind is probably all different types of ways. You’re not even focused on the test ‘cause of the situations that we dealt with before we got into the room. And then you get into the room with instructors who are like ignorant and don’t come out and disrespect you, but they try to do it in a way they think we don’t understand. We already got so much different stuff on our minds trying to take the test, and then they’re gonna come out and show [disrespect]? That’s how I was thinking about the whole thing.

Work by Schmader and Johns (2003) elucidates the cognitive state that Tamara describes above. The researchers discuss in their empirical work how identity threats can create the “racing mind” that must attend to self-doubt, self-monitoring, and thoughts about how one might or might not be confirming a sensed stereotype.13 In other words, when one is under threat, the working memory is attending to the more immediate identity contingency that the person senses (Bonnot & Croizet, 2007). This racing mind and multitasking thus impairs cognitive processes like reading, which are fundamental to all basic skills tests. Given this research, each of the identity threats that the students experienced during the testing event—regardless of their relevance to the skill the tests were designed to measure—had the capacity to affect their performance.


The results of this study suggest that some African American preservice teachers can experience identity threats and contingencies during teacher licensure testing events. As a contrast to previous research based upon test scores (Gitomer et al., 2011; Gitomer & Latham, 2000; Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010; Nettles et al., 2011) or students’ perspectives on the test itself (Bennett et al., 2006; Nettles et al., 2011), these findings are based upon an analytical lens that centers on test takers’ subjective experiences in the comprehensive testing event. These identity threats during testing events are conveyed by specific situational cues. Cues include actions from other test takers that represent stereotypes and interactions with site administrators and proctors that signaled race-based judgments. Threats may deal specifically with test-related domains (e.g., intelligence) as well as ones that are not related to test material. By focusing on students’ experiences rather than test scores, these findings clarify questions raised by previous research (Cullen et al., 2004; Cullen et al., 2006; Walters et al., 2004) about if identity threats can be cued in authentic test settings.

Having found that some students do experience threats, the findings of other studies now suggest some of the ways that the threats can affect students (e.g., overefforting, racing mind). However, the findings of this study are limited to make direct claims about how these threats specifically affected the scores that students received on Praxis. As discussed previously, this is a difficult claim to substantiate empirically due to ethical consideration and limitations of research design. Similarly, this study does not make the claim that students invariably fail when they experience threats and that they pass when they do not. It is indeed the case that some students experience threats and then exercise additional cognitive and affective skills to manage these threats in order to succeed. Regardless of the measurable ways that these threats might affect scores, it makes good sense to conclude that reducing them is one step toward creating a more equitable system of teacher licensure that will increase the numbers of underrepresented groups in the teaching force. Additionally, doing so can only improve the immediate event, performance, and the ostensible cumulative effects of identity threats upon preservice teachers.


The practical implications of this study concern how to decrease both the presence and effect of identity threats on preservice teachers who experience them. These implications are relevant to faculty and preparation programs that train teachers as well as test sites and administrators that coordinate licensure testing events.


For faculty, it is important to prepare students before the testing event for situational cues that they might encounter. Previous research on social psychological interventions has shown that these efforts can be based on developing value-affirming narratives among students (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2009), giving students vicarious models of success that increase self-efficacy (Petchauer, 2012), and getting students to understand that struggles in specific domains are not exclusive to their group (i.e., everybody experiences the challenges; Walton & Cohen, 2011).

From the findings in this study, these ideas translate in a few ways. First, an early part of test preparation—before skills and content development—should affirm the values and ideals that students hold as central to who they are as future teachers. Second, programs should have a structure for students who have passed the test to share their expertise with future test takers. This is less for direct information about passing the test and more for the vicarious successful experience that the test takers will likely experience. Finally, partnerships across institutions or with classroom teachers can enable students to see that the kinds of challenges they may experience are not categorically limited to African American students. A rich and practical review by Yeager and Walton (2011) provides additional guidelines for such interventions.


Despite the efforts of testing agencies and centers to control testing environments, the testing event is not immune from the identity contingencies, threats, and cues that exist in the outside world. Due to the nature of social experience, a constellation of elements during the testing event may add additional challenges to passing for some test takers who experience identity threats. Recognizing this nature of the testing event, testing centers and agencies should take vigilant steps to reduce the presence of cues that can signal harmful identity contingencies. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that some actions, although perhaps intended as helpful, can be interpreted as indicants of identity contingencies. These interpretations can be due to different cultural modes of communication or different social experiences that shape the interpretations of interactions. Perhaps what can help reduce the likelihood of troublesome cues is for the members of identity vulnerable groups to be in positions of influence at testing sites where they can help shape the kind of events that students experience. Members of these groups, such as women and people of color, are likely to be more aware of cues that could be misinterpreted as threatening. Along with this, test agencies should make reducing troublesome cues during testing events a central part of test administrator and proctor training. In fact, test agencies such as ETS should prioritize reducing troublesome cues to the same degree that they prioritize test security. If a breach of test security can compromise the validity of a test score, and this research suggests that identity contingencies can do the same, then both should be prioritized in order to preserve the validity of scores.

Additionally, test centers should consider the ways they can give cues to test takers that signal enabling identity contingencies. Like troublesome cues, these need not be elaborate or complex, and they need not be directed explicitly at African American test takers. These messages can simply communicate high expectations and a natural expectation of success (i.e., passing) for all test takers. Like with reducing troublesome cues, how to give enabling cues should also be a priority in administration and proctor training. With all of these recommendations, there is certainly a delicate art to them because they could be done in a way that inadvertently makes students hypersensitive to negative cues, thus exacerbating their effects. As recommended by Yeager and Walton (2011), these kinds of efforts usually require a stealthy “lighter touch” (p. 285).


Given the results of this study, it would be beneficial for future research to understand how test takers successfully negotiate threats when they are present during testing events. In other words, how do students “slay the ghosts in the room” when they are present? What cognitive and affective tools do they use to do so? The concept of stigma consciousness (Pinel, 1999) could be a helpful framework in this regard. Additionally, it would be beneficial to know how test takers might experience threats and contingencies based upon other relevant identity markers. Some of these might include gender with respect to mathematics and, particularly with the increase of alternative routes into teaching, nontraditional aged students and licensure exams. In these future explorations, researchers should look to understand which identity markers (and their related threats) are most salient in a testing event and how the presence/possibility of multiple threats interact.

As these future directions suggest, there is benefit to looking beyond score discrepancies and issues of cultural bias in tests and instead centering analysis on the comprehensive testing event and students’ grounded experiences in it. As a guiding heuristic, the testing event directs researchers to unexamined elements that certainly shape how test takers perform. These kinds of explorations (along with precise preparation efforts) are necessary to increase the numbers of African American preservice teachers who pass initial licensure exams and consequently enter the initial stage of professional education.


An extra-large thanks goes out to Mary Juzwik, Decoteau Irby, and Lynnette Mawhinney, each of whom provided valuable feedback on this manuscript.


1. By the term race, I refer to a socially constructed idea that often shapes how people think about the world, other people, and themselves. In this way, the idea and the associations that people draw with race (e.g., intelligence, skills, etc.) are often misunderstood as a biological fact.

2. A note on terminology: I use the term African American when referring to participants because this is the term they most frequently use to describe themselves. It should be noted, though, that this term can eclipse and inappropriately conflate other Black identities (such as students from Caribbean countries with no felt connection to Africa). I use the term Black when referring to historically Black colleges and universities because this is the most common term and reference for these kinds of institutions.  

3. Many of these barriers generate from the fact that to have a control group in an authentic testing event, researchers would have to lie to test takers about the test (e.g., that it is not designed to measure skills, content knowledge, etc.). Given that test takers’ performance would have important implications in their lives, this would be an unethical condition.

4.  In referencing a passing or achievement “gap,” I do not hold that the passing rate of White test takers is the desired rate and standard for other groups, a point developed by Asa Hilliard in much of his work (see Hood & Hopson, 2008). A gap such as this certainly signals the need for attention, but African American tests takers as well as others should be held to their own high standards, which might be more rigorous than that of White test takers.

5. Historically, the term Caucasian is rooted in the misnomer of race as a biological fact and refers to an archetypal people group from the Caucasus Mountain region in Europe. Participants often viewed this term as more formal (and less potentially offensive) than the term White. I use this latter term because it is consistent with the perspective that race (and Whiteness) is a social construct.  

6. This is likely a reference to Treisman (1992), a study whose results are often misunderstood. The study found that differences in college mathematics grades among races could be attributed in part to the different ways that students studied (e.g., collective, individualistic, private). On many occasions, people erroneously relay that the differences were due to time spent studying (i.e., African American students do not study as much as other races). In the study, African American students actually studied more than other groups, but their individualistic and private methods seemed to undermine their performance.

7. Shantel took the exam at a different testing site but was still selected to participate, so in this instance, she is asking for more clarity about the proctor’s actions.

8. In my records of this event, students were not asking the site administrator for directions. Renee is likely stating this as fact because of her awareness of how asking for directions (rather than reading first) might confirm a race-based stereotype.

9. The site administrators in this event did not identify me as part of the group. I was standing slightly behind the group as they looked at the room assignments on the wall, and I was not dressed formally to suggest that I was in some leadership role with students. The racial difference between me and the students and that there were other people my age at the center to take the test also factored into her assumption that I was not part of the group. In witnessing this event, I was concerned that her actions would be interpreted as racist and offensive (which they were, as this focus group interview confirmed) and potentially affect participants during the exam. I did not, however, ask participants about this or address it with them at the testing center. I made this decision because in the event that they had not interpreted the actions as such or did not notice her actions, I did not want my questions at the testing center to cue them into this interpretation and thus distract them from the test at hand. After they had gone into the rooms to take the exam, I outed myself to the site administrator as their professor and confronted her in a professional manner about the situation. Our conversation confirmed that she did not think I was part of the group. Participants were not aware of any of this until the open-ended portion of this interview when they asked about my interpretation of the event, and I shared it. Keeping my interpretation of the event separate until this open-ended portion (after participants had shared how they experienced the event) helped to avoid a situation in which my own interpretations of the event influenced participants’ answers.   

10. I understand Renee’s use of the word diverse in this instance as a reference to race and her awareness that she and other African American students from an HBCU are viewed in a particular way by non-African Americans when they are off campus in groups and frequently representing their institution on shirts or hats.

11. It should also be mentioned that while arriving in a group can make test takers more likely to experience identity threats, there could be some simultaneous benefits to being in a group such as feeling a sense of camaraderie and having people around to answer questions.  

12. This is a violation of test rules because test takers are not allowed to leave the room once it has begun.

13. The term racing in this sense should not be understood as an exclusive reference to race (i.e., ethnicity). The race in this term refers to a person’s mind being preoccupied. Race (i.e., ethnicity) and many other identity markers can cause the racing mind.


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Appendix A: Interview Protocol


What are your general feelings about standardized tests? (Probe: What standardized tests have you taken?)


Scroll Exercise 1: What words come to mind when you hear the word “Praxis?” (This question was printed on a scroll size Post-It, and students wrote their responses in marker before discussing them as a group.)


Before you took Praxis, how did you predict your performance would be? (i.e., How did you think you would do?). (Probes: on the whole thing? On individual tests?)


What accounts for your prediction on Praxis? (Probes: classes, other tests, what others have said?)


What kinds of things did you do to prepare for Praxis, if anything at all?


Scroll Exercise 2: What words describe how you felt while actually taking Praxis? (Can include before, during, and after the test; same instructions as Question 2 above.)


How was your experience with Praxis similar to and/or different from other standardized tests you have taken?


What do you think is most difficult about Praxis? (Probes: time limits, content, format?)


A lot of people say that these tests are culturally biased or that they favor some groups over others. To what extent to you agree or disagree with this?


Some research shows that minority students perform lower on standardized tests compared to majority or White students. What do you think are some reasons for this performance? (Probes: Are stereotype threat and vulnerability factors?)


Are there any other parts of the Praxis test that you want to bring up or that you think we should talk about? (Open ended portion of interview)

Appendix B: Sample Coded Interview Transcript Excerpt

Code symbols are as follows and appear before coded text: SC = Situational cue (SCc = comments; SCb = body language; SCe = eye contact, lack; SCt = tone of voice; SCp = presence of others; SCa = actions of others). IC = Identity contingencies (ICdir = don’t follow directions; ICr = don’t read; ICi = less/not intelligent; ICe = education at HBCU is of lower quality; ICdis = disrespectful; ICprep = don’t prepare for stand. tests; ICperf = don’t perform well on stand. tests; ICch = cheat).

Excerpts are in response to Interview Question 6 and participants discussing the terms upset and (un)comfortable to describe the testing event.

Author: Okay are there any other words up there we didn’t get to yet?

Renee: I agree with “upset.”

Author: Okay and why were you upset?

Renee: Well I was upset from the moment—well from when we walked in the door, it was already, I was already nervous for one, ‘cause it was my second go around, but two, I was very frustrated on how we were approached seeing as though there was a group of us African Americans. So um yeah, I felt some type of way as far as that. ‘Cause when I came in there, I mean I’m not very, I mean I don’t think of myself as color blind, so when I got there, you know, just we all wanna be teachers. So it’s just very frustrating [SCc] because of how the lady was speaking. Her comment was very unnecessary and that kind of rubbed me off the wrong way. [others agree] ‘Cause it kind of gave me an attitude in the beginning like, “Oh okay I know what this is about. They don’t want us to really succeed for real, for real.”

Tamara: That’s what I mean to put for it. I didn’t mean to put “comfortable,” I felt “uncomfortable” going into the school because like the environment. With Praxis, and all of us is trying to take a test . . . but we have a couple situations, like the teachers and administrators, they just made us feel like—‘cause we was from [Douglass]—[SCc] they was just trying to talk down to us like [ICi] we are not capable because of what they think we are. So I felt really um, I felt uncomfortable.

Author: Who else, you know, felt that way on Saturday in anyway?

Harrison: [SCc] I got that vibe, like that comment. I got the vibe when we were like in the test area.

Renee: Yep, and walked away!

Author: Which test area?

Harrison: Where we was taking it.

Author: Okay so what was that vibe, like what made you feel that?

Harrison: Like we wasn’t wanted there. Like she said, like they don’t want us to succeed.

Author: Okay so what happened in there? Who else felt that? [People raise hands] Like so, so everybody felt that in some way? Okay so what specifically in that testing area? What specifically happened to make you think about those things?

Harrison: [SCa] It was looks.

Author: Okay other people, other people respond to that.

Renee: You know what, the funny thing is I don’t know how I missed this, I don’t know if you observed it, but I’m very observant. There was a lady—it was about three other Black people—there was us of course, and it was like three other Black people there but they were older than us. It was one lady with the locks. The White lady basically let . . . first couple of people sit or whatever, but when it came to that [Black] lady, I don’t know if you noticed, but she [i.e., the White proctor] was like [SCc] “You know, could you sit right there.” And then the lady was like, “Why I can’t sit right there?”

Author: The lady with the locks?

Renee: [The proctor] said, [SCc] “I want you to sit up front,” yeah. She basically wanted her to sit up front towards the end [of the aisle]. So I just thought that was weird and the lady just was just like, she went back and forth and she was just like, “Why? Why I cant sit back there?” ‘Cause you wasn’t consistent as far as the first couple of people that came in and sat down where they wanted to sit. It’s all that room in there! Why can’t she sit wherever she wanna sit? As long as they not—who is going to sit exactly right next to each other?

Shantel: Did she ask anyone else? To sit other places?

Renee: After that she told us where, she told everybody. I know that the lady knew that was kinda wrong, but she told everybody from then on. Like it wasn’t a competition ‘cause the lady was more of an adult, but she was just like “Why I can’t—”

Shantel: But you’re saying like the room was pretty much empty. She walks in, it’s empty, so she wants to sit where she wants to sit.

Renee: Yeah basically. And she was just like, [SCc] “I want you to sit right here towards the end.”

Shantel: [ICch] Almost like “I want to watch you so you don’t cheat.”

Renee: [ICch] Basically so she won’t cheat.

Shantel: Okay.

Tamara: That’s wild, that’s wild. The first time we went and I had the ID issue and I went to the classroom and the guy—I knew no cell phones were allowed in or whatever, so I’m like, “Let me find my cell phone so I can turn it off,” and a group of university of X White students, White girls walked in before me and they had their cell phones in their hands. It was like, cell phones out, ID, and their admission tickets, and they [i.e., the proctor] let them go in. But when he saw me put my cell phone in my bag, he’s like, [SCc] “Oh no cell phones allowed. Your not allowed in the classroom.” And I said, “Why am I’m not allowed? I’m turning my cell phone off and putting it in the bag.” He said, “No, no cell phones in the classroom.” So I said “Where am I supposed to put it?” He said, “I don’t know just you can’t come into the classroom.” So I walked back to the lobby and I just took a deep breath and I came back, and that’s when the ID situation came up. And I felt like they wasn’t consistent with it ‘cause other girls had their cell phones out, but I didn’t explain that. The ID situation was more important [to take the test]. So I completely [inaudible]. I’m not sure like the two ladies that we was having the conversation with, it just felt like the whole vibe. Already I was tired like, I knew I should have got enough sleep, and then [SCc] she’s talking about IDs, that she don’t think our IDs are good enough or as good as her students’ IDs ‘cause she kept coming at our students and saying, “I’ve been administering the test for so many years.”

Appendix C: Merging of Codes


Appendix D. Codes, Data Sources, and Sample Data for Situational Cues


Focus Group Data From Testing Event 1

Focus Group Data From Testing Event 2

Field Notes

Situational cue: Interactions with proctors and administrators

-Renee: And then when one of our students mentioned, “Oh so, we’re supposed to go here,” [SCc] she says, “Oh, looks like you’re getting an A in your class,” or something. . . . That was the comment. And then after the comment it was, “Let me explain. Let me, let me read it for you,” you know. . . . And she was like, “Let me help you all out. These are the sections.”

Alesha: [SCb] And how she held her hands! [i.e., arms extended, palms facing students]

Harrison: [SCe] She never looked at us either

Renee: [SCe] She didn’t. She didn’t. She never looked at us with her eyes.

Harrison: [SCe] When she was speaking the whole time, she looked like straight ahead past us.

Shantel: How was her tone? Like how did she say it?

Tamara: [SCt] Sarcastic.

Renee: [SCt] Her tone was very sarcastic. It was very noticeable that she was very like prejudiced.

-Tamara: We have a couple situations like the teachers and administrators, they just made us feel like, [ICe] ‘cause we was from [Douglass], [SCc] they was just trying to talk down to us [ICi] like we are not capable of what they think we are. So I felt really un, I felt uncomfortable.

(Episode) The bus pulled up in front of the testing center at X University right on time, and students walked as a group into the building to go take the test, many of them wearing Douglass University hoodies, hats, and sweats—comfy test-taking gear for sure. There are only a few people in the lobby of the center, which means that the site administrators have probably already checked the other test takers into their rooms—no large group of people waiting around in the lobby to be let in like before. Arriving “right on time” means the students need to hurry. Students see about 10 pages of white paper with small print taped to the back wall and walk right up to see to what rooms they are assigned to. I’m walking behind the group a bit looking for a sign or something that might give more clues about where to go. Students stand in a group in front of the pages for about 20 s, all silent, scanning the pages. An older White lady of about 50 years old (probably the site administrator) then appears in front of the group, next to the sheets of paper. (I say “appears” because I do not see her approach.)

She tells the students, “These are the rooms you’re supposed to go to” while motioning to the sheets on the walls. A few students give her their last name so she can point them to the right paper on the wall that will tell them where they are assigned. A few students walk away and others linger for a few more seconds figuring out where to go. After about 30 s, all students have dispersed in different directions away from the back wall of papers to go take their Praxis exam.

Situational cue: Presence and actions of other test takers

-Natalie: And I told her “Yeah this is my first time taking it and I’m not good at math so I know I’m gonna fail” and she was like [SCc; ICperf; ICi] “Oh yeah you’re probably gonna fail” and I’m like [makes a shocked face, laughs] How you gonna tell me I’m gonna fail!? You can’t tell me that! . . . People try to put you down—you get put down by like stereotypes and stuff if you let it. If you don’t let it get to you, you will be fine.

-Amade: But I think that—ok when we were all on the bus and going to take the Praxis exam, I was comfortable and relaxed. (SCp) But when we actually got there and I saw how many Caucasian students were there, it was kind of intimidating because I didn’t expect it to be majority Caucasian students. . . . It was kind of intimidating. It was like, “Wow, I don’t think I’m gonna do as well as they are.” (SCa) And they were sitting there, and they had their books and stuff all studying before.” And I was like “Wow, ok.”

-Erykah: But I was just standing there waiting for my friends to come out from their test. And they were like “What you got for answer number 5?” [excited, loud], and one girl said, [ICperf; ICi; SCc] “It doesn’t matter, she failed anyway.”

(Sketch) It’s another early morning (6:15 a.m.) on the bus to go take Praxis. Students—about 20 of them dispersed around the bus—sit silent as it takes off from Douglass to the test site about 30 min away. The hum of the diesel engine and music from some headphones are the only sounds. Some students sit with their heads leaning against the windows and eyes shut. Others flip through practice books and take a look at a few sample problems. Another peels back the plastic top of a fruit cup and gets out a spoon.

(sketch) We show up to X University all at once, and there’s probably no mistaking where the group is from given the Douglass College logos on their hats, hoodies, and sweatpants. The 10 or so students who are already in the testing site look up when the students come in as one big group. The group doubles the number of test takers in the lobby. I’m surprised to see some older—in their 50s—test takers in the lobby and some White students. My surprise (I realize while writing this) is because this test site is another HBCU, so I had expected it to be mostly Black test takers—a mistake. It makes perfect sense that all different races and ages of test takers in the region would come here to take the exam.

The site administrator is nowhere in sight, so students occupy open seats or stand in small groups. Like on the bus, some sit in silence listening to music. Others stand in small group and talk or study from a booklet or the ETS “Test at a Glance.” I walk around from group to group and touch base, asking how they’re feeling, seeing if they have any final questions, and offering general words of encouragement.

Note. Bolds in field note excerpt indicate details that triangulate situational cues referenced by participants.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 7, 2014, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17476, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:05:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Emery Petchauer
    Oakland University
    E-mail Author
    EMERY PETCHAUER is an assistant professor of urban education in the Teacher Development and Educational Studies department at Oakland University. His research has explored the cultural dimensions of teaching and learning with implications for higher education, teacher development, and urban education. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives (Routledge, 2012) and the co-editor of Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum (Teachers College Press, 2013). His most recent research explores teacher licensure exams and their implications on the racial diversity of the teaching profession.
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