Grading Edge for Conservative Students

Study suggests that claims of pro-liberal tilt may have it backwards.
March 30, 2006

In debates over the Academic Bill of Rights, supporters of the controversial legislation have suggested that conservative students are the victims of classroom bias -- and receive lower grades or even failing grades because of their political views.

Much of the debate has involved trading anecdotes -- with David Horowitz citing examples of oppressed conservative students and his critics debunking those examples or providing counter-examples of classrooms where political bias is nowhere to be found in grading or student interactions.

It turns out that there is actual research that has been done on the subject. And the research suggests that there is no widespread relationship between students' political views and their grades. But there is one exception: In some disciplines favored by conservative students, liberal students seem to receive lower grades.

Markus Kemmelmeier, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, has been watching the Academic Bill of Rights debate with growing frustration, because he thinks there is proof about the question about classroom bias that has been ignored. "I just don't see evidence" of bias, says Kemmelmeier, one of three authors of an in-depth study on the topic that was published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The research looked at the politics and grades, over a four-year period, of 3,890 students at a large public university. The students -- most of whom entered as freshmen together and participated in the study by choice -- were asked a series of questions about their politics, shared information about their educational backgrounds and SAT scores, and then had their college grades tracked. The students in this sample broke down as 20 percent conservative, 42 percent middle of the road, 35 percent liberal, and the rest scattered in various extreme categories. The research focused on grading patterns for which there was an enrollment pattern by students' politics.

To try to identify cases of bias, the study controlled for factors such as students' SAT scores and grades generally, gender and race adn ethnicity, so that any grading bias would jump out.

Here's what the research found:

  • The more liberal students are, the more likely they are to take courses in fields like sociology and American studies where "questions of social justice" are a focus. Conservative students are more likely to enroll in departments like economics and business. This is a key fact, Kemmelmeir said, because the fields conservatives tend to study are fields where average grades are lower -- across all political groups. So when conservative students complain that their grades are lower than their liberal friends, they might be right -- but it has nothing to do with bias.
  • In disciplines that tend to attract more liberal students, there was no relationship between students' politics and the grades they received. The disciplines examined here included sociology, American studies, African-American studies, cultural anthropology, education, nursing and women's studies.
  • In disciplines that tend to attract more conservative students (economics and all of the disciplines in business schools), conservatives have a slight edge -- the equivalent of 0.25 on a 4-point graduate point average scale.

Before liberals rush to embrace the Academic Bill of Rights to protect their students, Kemmelmeier said that the size of the grading gap isn't so large that it necessarily means that there is bias. He said that there are any number of possible explanations. And he noted that the grading patterns took place in large courses (which tend to use multiple choice tests and in which professors may not know individual students) as well as in small seminars, where an instructor might be more likely to know students' inclinations.

Kemmelmeier, who described himself as a centrist with slight left leanings, said he wasn't making the case that no professor is biased. "It is possible that somewhere, somebody might be discriminating against conservative students. It's also possible that somebody discriminates against liberal students," he said.

What the research strongly argues against, he said, is the idea that there is any large-scale pattern in grading that hurts conservatives.


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