Racial bias in grading is a persistent and knotty problem. It’s one of the reasons that it’s better to grade essay exams blind without students’ names attached to them. Even Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman has recommended anonymous grading because of his findings of bias in decision making. But that’s often not practical for everyday assignments.
A recent study highlighted how the unfair grading of ordinary schoolwork extends down to even young students. In an experiment, teachers evaluated the same second-grade writing sample more harshly when there were clues that it had been written by a Black boy than when it appeared to have been written by a white boy.
“Teachers were 4.7 percentage points more likely to consider the white child’s writing at or above ‘grade level’ compared to the identical writing from a Black child.” wrote the University of Southern California researcher, David Quinn, describing his June 2020 study in an article published Nov. 2 in the journal Education Next.
Even more troublesome was which teachers were most likely to penalize Black boys: whites and females. Those are exactly the demographic groups that make up the vast majority of the U.S. teaching force.
Quinn also tested almost half of the teachers in the experiment for implicit bias but surprisingly didn’t find any connection between teachers’ implicit and explicit racial attitudes and the differences in how they graded the Black and white students. In other words, a teacher who harbors large racial biases can often be grading more fairly than a teacher who isn’t.
In the experiment, Quinn recruited more than 1,500 teachers online and asked them to assess the writing of a second grade boy describing his weekend. All the teachers were presented with a nearly identical narrative of 22 words written in a child’s handwriting by the researcher’s nephew. Invented spellings, such as “FRIND,” burst from the page and crooked letters spike above and dive below the lines. The punctuation and capitalization are incorrect but charming.
Behind the scenes, Quinn created two versions of the personal narrative with one subtle difference: the names of the author’s brother and his brother’s friend. In one version, the student author refers to his brother as “Dashawn,” signaling a Black child; in the other, his brother is called “Connor,” signaling a white child. (The researcher picked the names from a list of the most racially distinct names in the book Freakonomics.) Half the teachers randomly got one version and half got the other and were told to mark them based on how far below or above grade level they were.
For teachers who got the Connor version, 35 percent marked it as second-grade level work or better. By contrast, only about 30 percent of the teachers deemed the Dashawn version to be at grade level or better.
The teacher’s own race mattered. White teachers were 8 percentage points less likely to rate the Dashawn sample as being on grade level than the Connor sample. But there was no evidence of grading bias among teachers of color. They tended to grade both the Connor and Dashawn versions about the same.
There was a similar split between female and male teachers. Female teachers were 7 percentage points less likely to rate the Dashawn sample as being on grade level than the Connor sample. But male teachers didn’t mark them differently.
The fact that racial biases are higher among both whites and women is troubling because women account for almost 90 percent of teachers in U.S. elementary schools and whites make up almost 80 percent of the teaching force. Quinn’s group of 1,500 teachers was less white and less female than that so this study may be understating the actual degree of grading bias in second grade classrooms.
In an email interview, Quinn said he wouldn’t characterize the white and female teachers as racist. Each teacher in the study didn’t see both versions and grade them differently. All we know, from this research, is that there is racial bias against Black boys, on average.*
It’s unclear from this study if only white female teachers are prone to give lower grades to Black boys. Quinn checked to see if perhaps white males or female teachers of color were also exhibiting racial bias in grading but their numbers in the study weren’t large enough to make clear conclusions.
The other thing we don’t know is whether this racial bias is just as evident in grading girls, who tend to have neater handwriting. It’s quite possible that teachers would respond differently.
The researcher has a solution: use objective grading rubrics. When teachers were given explicit criteria for how to judge the student work, as opposed to using their general subjective judgment, there was no difference in the grades for Black and white boys. Approximately 37 percent of teachers rated both the Connor and Dashawn versions as recounting an event with some or more detail. Both races not only were graded equally, their grades were better!
Small injustices early in life can have consequences. If young children of color get discouraged by unfair grades at the beginning of their schooling, they may never progress very far in their education. We’re losing talent early on and this is one problem for which we may have a solution.
*Clarification: This paragraph has been altered to reflect the researcher’s opinion about his findings.
This story about racial bias in teaching was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.