Identifying Discrimination Against Students


Faculty Researcher Rema Hanna, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Measuring Discrimination in Education CoauthorLeigh Linden, Columbia University

Over the years, numerous studies on student achievement have shown the effects of teachers’ expectations on students’ performance. Much less is understood, however, about the factors underlying the formulation of teachers’ opinions. How do teachers make their assumptions?

A recent study, conducted in India by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Rema Hanna and Columbia University’s Leigh Linden, set out to determine whether discrimination based on minority status plays a role in teachers’ expectations.

Such discrimination, the authors say, “can have long-lasting effects, both reinforcing erroneous beliefs of inferiority and discouraging children from making human capital investments.” But, they say, separating minority status discrimination from other factors, such as poverty and related disadvantages, can be difficult.

The study involved an exam competition in which teachers graded exams that included a cover sheet listing randomly assigned characteristics (caste, gender, and age) about the students. The researchers chose India because of its entrenched caste system and its practice of recording students’ caste and religious background.

In the spring of 2007, in four separate sessions over a two-week period, 68 students were tested on basic math, language, and artistic skills. One hundred twenty teachers, recruited from local government and private schools, were each given 25 tests to grade. Teachers were permitted to give partial credit for answers, allowing them to exercise some level of subjectivity in grading.

Prizes of 2,500 rupees, or $58 (approximately half the monthly income reported by the students’ families), were awarded to the highest-scoring child in each of two age groups (7 to 10 and 11 to 14).

The study’s design, the authors write, “broke the correlation between observed characteristics and student quality,” a strategy ensuring that the researchers could “attribute any differences in the exam scores across different types of children to discrimination and to other characteristics belonging to a disadvantaged group.”

After all the grading was completed, the average grade for each child across teachers was computed.

The study showed that some teachers graded the exams they believed to be of upper caste higher by 3 percent to 9 percent higher. Interestingly, low-caste teachers drove the discrimination against lower-caste students. No discrimination was found among higher-caste teachers, and overall there was no evidence of discrimination on the basis of gender or age.

The study also showed that papers graded earlier in the process received lower scores for students from minority groups, with this effect fading as grading continued. This suggests, the researchers say, that as teachers became more confident in their understanding of a test, they were less likely to rely on student social status to determine grades, and that improving teachers’ skills with testing instruments may reduce discrimination.

The study also measured whether varying degrees of subjectivity in the exam (the artistic skills section was the most subjective) affected discrimination. Would it be less likely if teachers had less leeway in assigning points to answers? The study suggested that this was not the case, because the teachers injected subjectivity into all the subjects. The authors say that this research reflects only one element of discrimination in the classroom and that further study is needed. “If, as we show, discrimination exists in the subtle grading of an exam, other, more blatant types of discrimination may exist as well.”

These findings, they say, also underscore the importance of learning more about how discrimination based on minority status influences expectations. “While education has the power to transform the lives of the poor, children who belong to traditionally disadvantaged groups may not reap the full benefits of education if teachers systematically discriminate against them.”- by Sarah Abrams

If as we show, discrimination exists in the subtle grading of an exam, other more blatant types of discrimination may exist as well.

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