Why Do Students Get Good Grades, or Bad Ones? The Influence of the Teacher, Class, School, and Student

April, 2018
Elaine M. Allensworth and Stuart Luppescu

High school course grades are a primary source of information about students’ academic readiness, yet they are often viewed as inconsistent measures of student achievement—influenced by idiosyncratic practices across schools and teachers, systematic differences in course content and structure, compositional effects of peers, and student demographics. Prior research has not quantified the extent of this variation relative to the influence of students’ academic skills and effort, or examined multiple sources of influence simultaneously. This study employed cross-classified random-effects models with a dataset of 2.1 million grade records from 125,223 students and 11,000 teachers at 118 schools to identify sources of variation in students’ grades. Grades varied based on which teacher students had for a given class and the conditions of the class (course subject, classroom peer achievement, time of day, class size and term). There were systematic differences in course grades by race and gender, even among students taking the same classes under the same conditions with the same test scores and attendance in the course. However, students’ effort and skills, measured through attendance and test scores, dwarfed other sources of variation. Within- and between-student variation in attendance across classes also explained a substantial portion of variation by teacher, school and course conditions. Rather than finding large unexplained differences in grades based on which school a student attended, or which teacher they had, we found observable factors systematically explained differences in the grades that students received, particularly in students’ aggregate grade point averages.

This is a working paper. Working papers are preliminary versions that are shared in a timely manner, with the aim of contributing to ongoing conversations in research and practice. They have not undergone the Consortium’s full internal review process, nor have they received external peer review. Views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the UChicago Consortium or the University of Chicago. Any errors are the authors’ own.

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