Top of the Class: The Importance of Ordinal Rank

This paper establishes a new fact about educational production: ordinal academic rank during primary school has lasting impacts on secondary school achievement that are independent of underlying ability. Using data on the universe of English school students, we exploit naturally occurring differences in achievement distributions across primary school classes to estimate the impact of class rank. We find large effects on test scores, confidence, and subject choice during secondary school, even though these students have a new set of peers and teachers who are unaware of the students’ prior ranking in primary school. The effects are especially pronounced for boys, contributing to an observed gender gap in the number of STEM courses chosen at the end of secondary school. Using a basic model of student effort allocation across subjects, we distinguish between learning and non-cognitive skills mechanisms, finding support for the latter.

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