Academic rank order more important than academic ability in determining educational outcomes

A recent discussion paper by Richard Murphy and Felix Weinhardt at the London School of Economics, summarized in the article ‘Top of the Class’, suggests that a student’s academic rank in a school relative to other students strongly influences “non-cognitive skills such as confidence, perseverance and resilience” which in turn have a big impact on future academic outcomes.  This conclusion is based on a survey of some 15,000 UK students and matched against student test scores.  The authors found that rank order in primary school had a material effect on academic outcomes at secondary school.

Essentially, if there are 2 students of the same academic ability at primary school but one is ranked in the top 1/4 of an average school and the other ranked in the bottom 1/4 of an elite school, when the students get to high school the student with the high rank order in primary school will achieve materially higher test scores than the other.  This goes against the accepted wisdom of the importance of the student peer effect where is generally held that it is better to be in a school amongst high achievers than at a school with not so high achievers.

They suggest that the mechanism by which this divergent outcome occurs is that by being in top of the school cohort the student becomes more confident and thereby enjoy learning more, consequently leading them to spend more time improving their skills.  What is particularly interesting is that this rank order effect is more pronounced, four times more, for boys than for girls.

Personally this confirms my anecdotal observations growing up in country NSW. I could see that we always had our above average share of great sports people. I put this down to confidence through achieving and the mind set associated with a habit of winning from a young age. A benefit of being a part of many small population groups, thereby giving more of a chance to be a ‘winner’. Logically this effect had to be strong to overcome the benefits big cities like Sydney have in their advantage of large numbers generating, statistically, more genetically exceptional sports people.

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