Do teachers discriminate in occupational expectations and grading? by Shradha Parashari

Marks assigned by teachers tend to motivate students, have bearing on their career choices, admission to universities and affect students’ self-esteem. Existing literature shows that teachers may hold preconceived stereotypes and implicit biases based on their students’ ethnicity, caste, class, and sex, which influence the grades that the teachers award. Consistent with that, my own research among 120 teachers in 8 private and 11 Indian government schools found evidence of teacher discrimination on the basis of students’ caste and socioeconomic status. 

Marks assigned by teachers tend to motivate and incentivize students (Van Ewijk, 2011). Even basic in-class tests are important for students and in the long term are likely to have a bearing on their career choices (Hanna and Linden, 2012). Lavy (2008) points out that marks given to students by teachers not only determine students’ class ranking and admission to universities, but also act as a reward or punishment that can either boost or lower students’ self-esteem.

With regard to teacher influence on test scores, existing research suggests that teachers hold preconceived stereotypes, implicit biases that affect teachers’ expectations based on students’ ethnicity, socio-economic status, caste, sex and physical attractiveness which may influence the grades that they award. Psychological research shows that teachers may look hard for errors while marking essays or tests of minority students so that the results conform to their expectation. That is called an expectation confirmation bias (Sprietsma, 2012).

Experimental studies in the economics literature confirm this. For example, Hanna and Linden’s (2012) study on India shows that teachers assigned lower marks to low caste students relative to high caste students. Similarly, Sprietsma (2012) shows evidence for Germany of low marks assigned to essays written by students with Turkish names relative to essays by students with German names. Tenenbaum and Ruck (2007) find that US-American teachers hold lower expectations for minority African-American students relative to their Caucasian peers.

Consistent with these findings, my own research in 8 private and 11 government schools among 120 teachers in Delhi found evidence of teacher discrimination in occupational expectations (expectation of career paths of students) and grades awarded on the basis of students’ caste and socioeconomic status. To uncover this discrimination, I utilized a randomized experiment.

The experiment of the study was conducted in three stages. In the first stage, students were randomly selected and invited to write essays on the topic “My future career ambition” in which student’s described their background, occupational paths/career paths and challenges to achieve those career paths. In the second stage, I randomly manipulated students’ caste and socioeconomic status on the set of essays. The last and third stage involved visiting schools and requesting teachers to mark essays on a score of 100 and rate occupational expectations (expectations about student’s career paths) on a score of 5. The findings from my research are in line with existing literature on teacher discrimination in schools.

Discrimination confirmed

I found that teachers discriminate in holding occupational expectations and grading. Teachers assigned lower occupational expectations for essays assigned to low caste and low socio-economic status relative to high caste and high socio-economic status. However, high socio-economic status mitigates the effect of low caste. Consistent with this bias in occupational expectations estimates show a bias in grading which is consistent with Sprietsma’s (2012) findings that lower expectations of teachers against  minority students might further perpetuate discrimination in grading.


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Figure 1 and 2: Mean teacher’s occupational expectations and Marks

Essays assigned low caste and low socio-economic status characteristics are assigned 3.64 points lower marks relative to essays assigned to high caste and high socio-economic status. Given the ultra-competitive nature of schooling in India and the importance of grades in determining access to higher education, a 3.6 point disadvantage is substantial. There is also a trade-off between caste and socio-economic status. Belonging to high socio-economic status lowers the extent of discrimination faced by low caste students as marking bias falls by 0.8 points for low caste and high socio-economic status students. The research further explains the origin of these results and finds that the discrimination against low caste students arises from a majority number of high caste teachers in the sample and not from the low caste teachers.


Education has the power to transform lives of students who belong to minority classes and castes. However; they may not be able to reap advantage of education if teachers discriminate in occupational expectations and grading. Since discrimination is associated with feelings of inferiority among students and low self-esteem adversely affects their admission to universities, their career choices and their overall development (Hoff and Pandey, 2006), teacher discrimination is a matter of concern. There is an urgent need for proper training mechanisms in schools that address teacher discrimination, requesting teachers to take implicit bias tests, educating teachers about stereotypes and implicit bias that might bias teachers’ expectations against minority students and perpetuate discrimination in grading. Further formulating a policy of standardized objective grading can also aid in minimizing discrimination in grades awarded.

Link to the author’s research paper:

Casteel, C.A. (1998) ‘Teacher–student Interactions and Race in Integrated Class-rooms’, The Journal of Educational Research 92(2): 115-120.
Ferguson, R.F. (2003) ‘Teachers’ Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap’,  Urban Education 38(4): 460-507.
Hanna, R.N. and L.L. Linden (2012) ‘Discrimination in Grading’, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 4(4): 146-168.
Hoff, K. and P. Pandey (2006) ‘Discrimination, Social Identity, and Durable Inequalities’, American Economic Review 96(2): 206-211.
Lavy, V. (2008) ‘Do Gender Stereotypes Reduce Girls’ Or Boys’ Human Capital Out-comes? Evidence from    a Natural Experiment’, Journal of Public Economics 92(10-11): 2083-2105.
Sprietsma, M. (2012) ‘Discrimination in Grading: Experimental Evidence from Primary School Teachers’,            Empirical Economics 45(1): 523-538.
Tenenbaum, H.R. and M.D. Ruck (2007) ‘Are Teachers’ Expectations Different for Racial Minority than for European American Students? A Meta-Analysis.’, Journal of Educational Psychology 99(2): 253.
Van Ewijk, R. (2011) ‘Same  Work, Lower Grade? Student Ethnicity and Teachers’ Subjective Assessments’, Economics of Education Review 30(5): 1045-1058.

Image Credit: Shradha Parashari

ShradhaAbout the author:

Shradha Parashari is an ISS alumna of the 2017-18  MA batch and a Research Associate at Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago-India. This blog is concerned with the author’s award-winning research that was conducted under supervision of Professor Arjun Singh Bedi and Professor Matthias Rieger.









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  • Shradha
    June 26, 2019

    Hi! Thanks for your comment. Will definitely do that!

  • F68.10
    June 24, 2019

    Thank you very much for your research and the link to your paper. Very much appreciated.

    A next step that would be fruitful, I believe, would be to attempt not only to make papers about discrimination (which is necessary) but to start attempting to formulate criticisms and propositions about the issue of education in the format of so-called “evidence-based policy”.

    Would love to read more of your work.