How to Reduce Racial Bias in Grading: New research supports a simple, low-cost teaching tool

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Author: David M. Quinn
Date: Winter 2021
From: Education Next(Vol. 21, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,369 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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SCHOOLS AND POLICYMAKERS are mandating new antibias training for teachers in an attempt to improve racial attitudes. Decades of research have shown that teachers often give racially biased evaluations of student work and that biased evaluations can affect students' future learning and course-taking decisions. However, less is known about what school leaders can do to correct this problem. Research does not show current forms of anti-bias training to be especially promising in changing behavior.

There is, though, a relatively straightforward, if often overlooked, way to diminish the impact of teachers' racial biases in student evaluation: standardizing grading rubrics. To gauge the potential impact of a standardized rubric on grading bias, I conducted an experiment comparing how teachers graded two identical second-grade writing samples: one presented as the work of a Black student, and one as the work of a white student.

My experiment found that teachers gave the white student better marks across the board--with one exception. When teachers used a grading rubric with specific criteria, racial bias all but disappeared. When teachers evaluated student writing using a general grade-level scale, they 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. However, when teachers used a grading rubric with specific criteria, the grades were essentially the same.

The experiment also included a series of questions asking teachers about their background and their racial attitudes. In exploratory analyses examining bias by teachers' own race, gender, and the racial makeup of the schools where they teach, I found larger bias in grading by white and female teachers, who were less likely to rate the Black child's writing as being on grade level compared to the white child's writing. However, I didn't find any connection between my measures of teachers' implicit and explicit racial attitudes and the differences in grading the Black and white student writing samples.

This experiment suggests that racial stereotypes can influence the scores teachers assign to student work. But stereotypes seem to have less influence on teachers' evaluations when specific grading criteria are established in advance. New instructional practices and tools, such as standards-based grading rubrics and mastery-based grading with specific criteria, present potentially effective approaches to promoting racial equity in schools. Limiting opportunities for biased decisions may have more immediate impact on equitable student evaluation than current forms of anti-bias training.

Building a Grading-Bias Experiment

My experiment took the form of a web-based survey, including demographic questions, a two-part grading task, and a test to measure racial attitudes. I contracted with a private survey provider to recruit a multi-state sample of U.S. schoolteachers. Some 1,799 unique users responded to a survey invitation. Of those, 1,549 teachers working in preschool through 12th grade completed the main survey tasks and were compensated directly by the company for participating. Their responses form the basis of my analysis.

At the start of the survey, teachers were informed that the researcher was interested in learning how...

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