Grading & Politics
posted by Dave Hoffman
Partisan Grading, a new paper by Talia Bar and Asaf Zussman, reports a striking empirical finding:
“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.”
This kind of observational dataset is subject to many different methodological attacks – including, crucially, claims of self-selection and therefore reverse causation. (For a sample of other concerns, check out this generally good VC comment thread.) But let’s assume that there’s some “truth” there: what’s the mechanism?
I doubt very much that partisanship is the right story, since party affiliation is (even now) a blanket masking many ideological views. Rather, partisanship overlaps with other values that do correlate well with preferences for the distribution of social goods like grades — the cultural world-views that Mary Douglas famously described. It isn’t surprising that professors’ general world-views influence their perceptions of what kind of “curve” is appropriate – and, therefore, how grades ought to be distributed. This leads to to some different communication strategies for those of you who might be working on grading reform. (I once was on such a committee. Never, never again. But it did produce some blogging.) At a structural level, if grade distribution is more ideologically based than it first appears, a stable system will probably have to be more permissive of deviation than I might otherwise have expected.