May 23, 2011

Grading by Ideology

Justin Katz

An interesting tidbit from over the weekend is that college professors appear to grade differently based on political affiliation:

We study grading outcomes associated with professors in an elite university in the United States who were identified -- using voter registration records from the county where the university is located -- as either Republicans or Democrats. The evidence suggests that student grades are linked to the political orientation of professors: relative to their Democratic colleagues, Republican professors are associated with a less egalitarian distribution of grades and with lower grades awarded to Black students relative to Whites.

As you can see by the included chart, Republican-given grades track more closely with what one might expect: lower grades correlating with lower SAT scores and higher with higher. And I'd certainly be willing to believe that Democrats (presumed, in the study, to be liberal) are more apt to boost underachievers and resent overachievers, whom they attempt to humble.

Still, one major consideration that does not appear to have been taken into account (at least as apparent in a quick scan of the research document) is the type of courses involved. Humanities departments, to my experience, have a deeply entrenched and rigid screening process that surely keeps Republicans and (especially) conservatives out, so those Republicans whom one can find on faculty lists are likely to be teaching less mushy, more objective subjects .

Another explanation, apart from the urge to redistribute, could involve Republicans' status as a small minority. Whatever is cause and whatever is effect, professors who feel as if they exist behind enemy lines, as it were, might have a different outlook on testing and grading, making them more likely, I'd wager, to prioritize proven achievement in a competitive atmosphere.

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One of the greatest lessons I learned from the humanities departments at my undergraduate university was to keep my mouth shut regarding my political beliefs unless I was quite sure that they wouldn't result in grade deflation.

Unfortunately, in a Massachusetts university, it's difficult to find any conservative professors. Those who call themselves "moderate" are usually putting on a disguise.Students can argue that these professors views are mainstream and that they agree with them. The logic then follows that these students are moderate because they agree with their "moderate" professors.

Posted by: Rosie at May 23, 2011 10:24 AM

My two worst professors were from opposite sides of the political spectrum (if you subscribe to such a thing).

One was an ultra-progressive humanities professor whose answer to everything was more top-down control and central planning through the "democratic process," by which he really meant appointed public policy experts, such as himself. On the first day, he distributed an 8-page booklet to each student on the importance of using gender-neutral language with a stern warning that points would be taken off for any violations. Minority students were given special "attention" during class. We'd have group huddles as a class during which he'd occassionally break down sobbing whenever a topic moved him that way, usually on something related to universal healthcare. Our final paper was worth half of our grade. I parroted back to him all of the positions he took in class and I got an A.

Second worst was an ultraconservative engineering professor who broke us all into teams and observed us problem solving. He then, based on 5 minutes of observation, appointed a leader for each group based on his self-described industrial expertise and knowledge of effective leadership techniques. All of the military ROTC students in the class were appointed as leaders, and the rest were assigned to loud individuals who simply talked over everyone else. Every class would somehow turn into a 2-hour discussion of foreign affairs and every example related back to the military for some reason, with input constantly sought from the ROTC students, most of whom were well below a 3.0 GPA. I kept my head down, did my work, and tried not to incur his wrath like those students who dared to challenge him. I got a B like everyone else in the class, except for the team leaders who all got As.

Posted by: Dan at May 23, 2011 12:22 PM

When my daughter was in prep school, it was anounced at a parents meeting that 2 "units" of American History would be deleted to make room for 2 "units" of African History. When some of us objected, we were warned that our children's grades "might be degraded if they did not receive support at home".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 23, 2011 1:37 PM

An addendum to my post above. It probably need not be mentioned that the school was in Cambridge.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 23, 2011 1:39 PM
As you can see by the included chart, Republican-given grades track more closely with what one might expect: lower grades correlating with lower SAT scores and higher with higher.

There are a number of studies showing SAT scores are relatively weak predictors of GPA. Looking only at elite universities this is particularly true because the spread of SAT scores is relatively small.

Most studies find that the correlation between SAT scores and first-year college grades is not overwhelming, and that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the variation in first-year GPA is explained by SAT scores.

This association appears weaker than it is, however, for an interesting, but seldom noted statistical reason: Colleges usually accept students from a fairly narrow swath of the SAT spectrum.

The SAT scores of students at elite schools, say, are considerably higher, on average, than those of students at community colleges, yet both sets of students probably have similar college grade distributions at their respective institutions.

If both sets of students were admitted to elite schools or both sets attended community colleges, there would be a considerably stronger correlation between SATs and college grades at these schools.

Posted by: Russ at May 23, 2011 3:21 PM


I have a good guess as to what school you're referring to.

Posted by: Rosie at May 23, 2011 4:25 PM


I have a good guess as to what school you're referring to."

Buckingham, Browne & Nichols. Sounds like a law firm.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 24, 2011 1:29 PM
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