Girls in French schools in the 6th grade (the UK equivalent of year 7) are overmarked by 6% compared with boys – but the bias is helping them to select science courses later, and do better at school. That is the finding of research by Camille Terrier to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s 2015 annual conference.
The study of the marks given to school children finds evidence of teachers'' bias towards girls in maths marking, but also long-term effects of the bias:
• Girls get a helping hand: 6th grade teachers gave girls 6% higher marks for the same work, compared to anonymous marking.
• It''s not because boys misbehave: better behaviour in class is not a factor in this ''nudge''.
• The nudge pays off: classes in which 6th grade teachers discriminate most are also the classes in which the girls progress the most relative to the boys for the next four years.
• It raises the girls'' achievement: discriminatory behaviour increases girls'' probability of attending a general high school (rather than a vocational or technical one) compared with boys.
• It influences life choices: girls choose more science courses compared with boys when teachers favour them.
• But it''s a geek thing: there was no gender bias in French.
The OECD, among others, has shown that girls often lack confidence in science subjects, leading them to opt out of them later in school. This study suggests that overmarking could be a way to reduce the inequalities in achievement between boys and girls in science.
Tolerating bias can have negative effects, according to the author: ''If we consider that the role of marks is above all to evaluate the competences of students, then the existence of bias can seem problematic. Several important decisions in school life are made on the basis of student grades, such as the choice of stream at the beginning of upper secondary school, whether to repeat a year, and the choice of subject path.''
But, the author argues, discrimination does not affect student qualifications, because those exams are graded anonymously: marks obtained through standardised exams have the advantage of being free from bias. And the use of gender bias cuts both ways: ''In the same way, in the humanities subjects, they might encourage boys to eliminate their lag'', the author adds.
The OECD has just released a study showing that girls lack self-confidence in mathematics and science. The current study is key to understanding early gender inequalities in achievement at school, and how to reduce these inequalities. It answers two questions: is there gender bias in how teachers grade pupils? And does any such bias affect the progress of girls compared with boys? This is the first economic study to show that rewarding girls has the potential to make them progress more, compared with boys.
To do so, the study uses a unique dataset on 6th grade French pupils that contains grades given by teachers, scores obtained anonymously by pupils at different ages, and their course choice during high school.
Analysis of marks given both anonymously and not, to students in the 6th grade reveals positive discrimination for girls in maths but an absence of gender bias in French: for similar anonymous marks, girls receive higher marks from their maths teachers than boys. No bias is observed in French. The less disruptive behaviour of girls in class does not explain this ''helping hand''.
The study then uses the observation that different teachers have different degrees of bias. It shows that the classes in which teachers show greatest bias in favour of girls are also the classes in which girls progress the most relative to boys. At the beginning of the 6th grade, girls perform lower than boys in math but they catch up during the school year. The reduction of this achievement gap between boys and girls is entirely driven by teachers'' discriminatory behaviour.
Then, over the next four years, girls in this sample continue to catch up and half of it is explained by teachers'' biases. Additionally, girls are relatively more likely to attend a general high school (rather than a professional or technical one), and to choose scientific courses in high school in classes where teachers are more biased. All together, these results show that positively rewarding pupils has the potential to affect their progress and course choice.
These results raise the question of the role of marks: are they intended only to evaluate the competence of students, or are they also an instrument with which teachers improve student progress?
In the latter case, since we note that marks in maths influence the progress of students, they could be a way to reduce the inequalities in achievement between boys and girls. In the same way, in the humanities subjects, they might encourage boys enough to eliminate their lag.
In the first case, if we consider that the role of marks is above all to evaluate the competences of students, then the existence of bias can seem problematic. Several important decisions in school life are made on the basis of student grades, such as the choice of stream at the beginning of upper secondary school, whether to repeat a year, and the choice of subject path. Marks obtained through standardised exams have the advantage of being free from bias and constituting a viable alternative.
Alternatively, a non-costly policy to remedy teachers'' biases would consist of informing teachers, education providers and inspectors about conscious or unconscious stereotyping and its potential effects on the grades given.
Finally, in certain countries, the age at which students begin to be graded is higher than in others (11 years old, for example, in Sweden), which slows the possibility of bias in the marks given.