Student Achievement

Teacher Biases Differ for Low- and High-Achieving Minority Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 04, 2015 2 min read
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Teacher expectations matter for student achievement, and there’s plenty of evidence that those expectations can be subconsciously shaped by a lot more than a child’s academic ability. One study suggests racial bias—long found to affect teacher expectations—can show up differently for minority students who are struggling and those who are high-fliers.

In a study in the journal Social Science Research, Yasmiyn Irizarry, a quantitative sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin used data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to compare 1st graders’ actual scores on a series of cognitive and literacy tests to how teachers ranked the students in comparison to all 1st graders. After controlling for other characteristics like socioeconomic status and parents’ education, Irizarry found teachers were generally accurate in rating average-performing students as average, and there were no racial differences among white, Asian, white Latino, nonwhite Latino, and black students.

At the top and bottom of the bell curve it was a different story. Among low-performing students, teachers consistently rated their black, Asian, and nonwhite Latino students more positively than their scores would suggest, and rated their low-performing white students more negatively.

By contrast, high-performing students of color were underrated by their teachers in comparison to white high-achievers. Black or Latino students who scored in the top 10 percent of all 1st graders, were 7 to 9 percentage points less likely to be rated “far above average,” and they were generally rated one to two rankings lower (out of five) than white students who scored the same. For high-performing students, the gaps in teachers’ expectations between white students and those of color did not close until minority students were in the top 1 percent of all students.

Different Effects of the Same Bias?

Irizarry, an assistant professor in African and African diaspora studies and a researcher in UT’s Population Research Center, said different sides of the same racial bias could explain the expectation gaps for high- and low-achieving students. Teachers with higher expectations for white than black or nonwhite Latino students could judge low-performing white students more harshly, but underestimate the ability of top students of color.

“All of the students were being pulled towards the center,” she said. “Teachers may have subconscious fears of overpenalizing students of color, so they are giving better ratings because they were afraid of appearing racist.”

That could change how teachers interact with students in class, or how they identify students for interventions and opportunities. “If a teacher is making recommendations for a gifted program or group placement or resources and supports, she is thinking of an overall assessment of where the student is in comparison to other kids,” she said. “So these general rankings are important.”

Schools and districts are starting to pay more attention to how unconscious personal and structural biases can affect students’ academic careers. You can find more about how districts in California and Minnesota are working to close achievement gaps in the latest installment of Education Week‘s yearlong series on reducing the effects of bias in schools.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.