Red Grader, Blue Grader

Study finds that Republican professors are more likely to give very high grades and very low grades -- and to give lower grades to black students -- than their Democratic counterparts.
May 20, 2011

Republican professors and Democratic professors presumably produce different outcomes when they enter the ballot box, but what about when they record grades?

A forthcoming study finds that there may be notable differences. Democratic professors appear to be "more egalitarian" than their Republican counterparts when it comes to grading, meaning that more of the Democratic grades are in the middle. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to award very high grades and very low grades.

Another key difference is that black students tend to fare better with Democrats than with Republicans.

While the study documents those differences, the work will not satisfy political partisans hoping to demonstrate that Republicans are trying to encourage Darwinian competition with grading or that Democrats are Lake Wobegon graders afraid to suggest anyone did poorly. That's because the study makes clear that the researchers lacked the information to determine whether the Democratic or Republican grades were better reflections of student performance. The only thing the researchers could vouch for was the politically linked pattern in grading.

The study -- forthcoming in Applied Economics -- is by Talia Bar, an assistant professor at Cornell University, and Asaf Zussman, assistant professor of economics at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They examined thousands of grades in a dataset covering the grades awarded at an unnamed elite American university between 2000 and 2004. Party registrations were used to identify professors' political inclinations, and the faculty at this university leaned Democratic, especially among humanities professors. Using SAT scores as a proxy for the preparedness of students, the researchers were able to rule out patterns in which Republican or Democratic professors had better students.

On grade distribution, Republicans were more likely to give very high and very low grades. Among grades given by Republicans, 6.2 percent were C- or lower, compared to only 4.0 percent of the Democratic grades. But Republicans were also more likely to give out A+ grades (8 percent of their grades, compared to only 3.5 percent from Democrats).

With regard to race of students, the study found that black students received lower grades, on average, than did white students whether classes were taught by Democrats or Republicans. In courses with Democratic professors, the gap was 0.27 on a grade point average. In Republican-led classrooms, the gap was 0.42.

While the authors don't endorse the grading style of either Democrats or Republicans, they conclude their paper by arguing that people (such as those concerned about grade distribution) seeking to influence grading policies should pay more attention to the political factor. "Our results suggest that the allocation of grades is associated with the world view or ideology of professors," the authors write.


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