Study: Raising Expectations Actually Raises Students’ Grades

High school students held to high academic standards are much more likely to graduate from college, a study shows. But such a finding highlights another area where disadvantaged students and students of color are at risk.

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How do expectations, particularly teacher expectations, affect students in the U.S.? Are standards high enough? Does Common Core, which has been adapted by some states, set the bar too high?

These are all questions that Center for American Progress senior fellow Ulrich Boser has tried to unpack in an issue brief (pdf), and there is a simple answer: Students do better when more is expected of them.

“[The data shows] this very strong predictive relationship with college graduation rates. So high school students who have teachers with higher expectations are much more likely to graduate college than those whose teachers have low expectations of them,” Boser explained to The Root.

The data used came from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Educational Longitudinal Study, taken from a nationally representative group of 10th-grade students and tracking their progress from 2002-2012.

However, students of color, as well as students from disadvantaged backgrounds, tend to suffer the most when dealing with teacher expectations, since the data reveals that secondary school teachers considered high-poverty students to be 53 percent less likely to graduate from college than more-affluent students. They also believed that black students were 47 percent less likely to graduate from college than their white counterparts and that Latino students were 42 percent less likely to graduate than their white peers. 

“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds … are less likely to graduate from college,” Boser said. “Teachers do have these low expectations for these types of students, and we know that these expectations are important. So what can we do to give educators both the tools that they need and the kind of culture that they need to make sure that they can reach out to these students? That they can give these students higher expectations that also then help those students reach those higher expectations?”

The difficulty is determining whether these expectations come from teachers merely predicting accurately, based on data and statistics gathered about the student, or whether expectations are influenced by teachers’ personal biases.

“[Teachers] are not solely responsible for this student’s entire life history, so we have to acknowledge that … these teachers might just be predicting accurately what is going to happen from these students,” Boser said. “But at the same time, I think consciously and unconsciously, we have a system that reflects society in general, and we know that racism takes all sorts of forms. We know that having low expectations for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds is a long-standing problem. We also know these students get less than their fair share of resources [like] good teachers, so there’s a whole host of factors at play here.”

If it is, in fact, biases that cause these bad predictions, it may take some work to aid teachers in overcoming them, but according to Boser, it is possible.

“I think acknowledging [biases] and dealing with them straight on is an excellent first step,” he said. “The second thing I would say is that we don’t give teachers enough hands-on training for how to teach in schools, whether they’re urban schools or high-poverty schools, rural schools. We just don’t give them those really hands-on training that they need.”