Do School Counselors Exhibit Bias in Recommending Students for Advanced Coursework?
Black female students are statistically least recommended and rated as least prepared for AP Calculus by high school counselors, which has implications for their likelihood of success in the long-term.
Advanced Placement (AP) courses at the high school level in the U.S. are associated with a range of benefits for students who take up the courses – access to highly trained and more effective teachers, improved academic performance, increased likelihood of graduation, improved behavioral outcomes and self esteem, and increased access to beneficial social networks.
Evidence shows that Black, Hispanic, and female students are underrepresented in AP courses, especially in STEM AP courses. Previous evidence suggests that improvements in math outcomes for girls and students of color are linked with better long-term life outcomes. High school counselors may also influence whether students ultimately choose or enroll in AP courses. High school counselors provide information to students about available courses and academic counseling, and play a significant role in encouraging (or discouraging) particular students to apply for AP courses.
This study investigates whether school counselors exhibit racial or gender bias during the AP Calculus course assignment process. The authors examine the impact of conscious or unconscious bias among high school counselors towards student-profiles with white-male, white-female, black-male, and black-female ‘sounding’ names. Additionally, the authors introduce an experimental intervention designed to reduce the potential for bias – by using anonymized profiles.
The survey presented student profiles as rated to be ‘Strong’ or ‘Borderline’ in both ‘Academic’ and ‘Behavioral’ traits by their teachers. The respondents were then asked to rate academic preparedness of the students on a scale of 1-10 and recommend to AP Calculus. Black girls were found to be least recommended and rated least prepared for AP Calculus.
- Black girls with Strong Academic Strong Behavioral profiles were 20 percentage points less likely to be recommended than the same profile that got a blind review (where the student’s name was not mentioned) and scored 1.37 points less out of 10 on average when the counselors rated them for academic preparedness.
- Black girls with Borderline Academic Borderline Behavioral profiles were 25 percentage points less likely to be recommended than the same profile that got a blind review and scored 0.7 points less out of 10 on academic preparedness.
- White boys with Borderline Academic Borderline Behavioral profiles were 11 percentage points less likely to be recommended than the same profile that got a blind review and scored 0.46 points less out of 10 on academic preparedness.
- This could be attributed to academic expectations being higher for white boys – and thus harsher judgement when they fail to live up to them.
The study finds that that Black girls are uniquely disadvantaged – a black girl in the strongest academic and behavioral profile is equally as likely to be recommended as someone blindly reviewed in the weakest academic and behavioral profile and is rated as being least academically prepared. This points towards the needs for systemic interventions to address implicit biases among school counselors.
Further, programs that ask individuals to make recommendations may be subject to bias, conscious or unconscious. Although this bias can be reduced through blind reviews, it must be balanced with the possibility that blind reviews might have a negative impact for disadvantaged students if counselors are social-justice oriented and in fact do champion underrepresented students consciously.
A total of 286 participants at a national education conference voluntarily took the survey but a sample of 152 participants was used for analysis – since they indicated they had some high-school counseling experience.
The participants were asked to complete a 10-minute survey evaluating a total of six student profiles that were of identical academic and behavioral strengths – 1. Strong Academic Strong Behavioral; 2. Strong Academic Borderline Behavioral; 3. Borderline Academic Strong Behavioral; and 4. Borderline Academic Borderline Behavioral. For all but two baseline profiles with gender and race neutral names, the names on the profiles were varied randomly to represent a specific race and gender combination – white-male, white-female, black-male, and black-female. Some participants received profiles with no names – introducing a blind recommendation scenario so that any significant differences in recommendations could be attributed to bias.
The authors then ran a regression analysis predicting the effects of having a particular race/gender name on the likelihood of the student being recommended to AP Calculus and on their academic preparedness score.