Research by Richard Murphy and Felix Weinhardt finds that pupils who rank higher in a subject during primary school go on achieve more than similar pupils who had the same test score but a lower rank. This suggests that having better peers is not always the best for children. While the research is focused on educational outcomes, the principle of rank improving confidence and later outcomes could be applied to many other settings.
Pupils who rank higher in primary school perform better in secondary school, but not only because they are smarter but because previous success inspires confidence. The importance of ordinal rank has typically been overlooked compared with the attention paid to absolute levels or relative differences. However, it has recently been shown that rank ordering is important to individuals when making comparisons. This research builds on this and examines how rankings effect investment decisions.
We find that pupils who rank higher in a subject during primary school go on achieve more than similar pupils who had the same test score but a lower rank. Furthermore, these effects occur across subjects within a pupil. A pupil who got the same score in English, maths and science but just so happened to be ranked higher in maths would on average achieve higher scores in maths compared to English or science in secondary school.
In order to obtain these findings we needed sufficient observations in order for pupils with the same test scores to have different ranks. Thankfully the Department for Education records the test scores of all state school pupils in England who sit national exams. This provided us with over two million pupils over five cohorts who we tracked from the end of primary school into secondary school. We used the test scores in English, math and science at the end of primary school to account for initial ability and national tests at age 14 in the same subjects as outcomes.
We find a pupil ranked at the 75th percentile rather than the 25th throughout primary school has test scores 0.2 standard deviations larger three years later. For comparison the size of this effect is equivalent to pupils who are taught by a highly effective teacher for a year, however these teacher effects fade quickly. Furthermore, we also find that boys are four times more affected by being top of class compared to girls. Similarly, pupils who receive free school meals gain more from being at the top, though they seem not to suffer from being at the bottom.
This goes against the common assumption that having better peers is always the best for children. Our study suggests that there are situations where your child will be better off from not going to the school with high-performing peers, especially for boys.
Our hypothesis is that this is caused through pupils making comparisons between themselves and their peers concerning where they rank in each subject. It is a natural instinct to compare yourself against your peers and when we are making these, this affects our self-concept. Imagine two pupils of the same high maths ability: one is top of class but the other is in the middle as the school they attend attracts many high ability students. We propose that the pupil who was top of class develops a more positive self-concept in maths. It is well established in the education literature that those who have positive self-concept in a subject are more likely to develop confidence and resilience in that subject. We model this as pupils having a lower cost of effort in that subject, as they are less likely to be put off by difficult questions. Given that they have a lower cost of effort, the student with a high maths rank would therefore invest relatively more into maths than the other two subjects.
While this research is focused on educational outcomes, the principle of rank improving confidence and later outcomes could be applied to many other settings. Imagine a child being the best in their street at football, they would become more confident and may enjoy the sport more. As a result the kid would end up spending more time playing football and through doing so further improve their skills. Adults could also be affected; being placed in a high performing environment may damage their confidence.
To test this mechanism, we combine the administrative data on pupil test scores with a survey 15,000 pupils, which asks directly about their confidence in English, maths and science. We find even after accounting for actual test scores, the pupils rank amongst their peers is a large and significant determinate of confidence. These effects on confidence on later test scores are subject-specific. This means that a high rank in English in primary school, for example, improves later confidence and outcomes in English.
We believe these findings have general implications to productivity to the classroom and work place. Given the heterogeneous effects of rank it could be possible to organise groups/classes to maximise output by individual characteristics. However this would be very cumbersome and administratively intensive. Groups/classes also cannot be re-organized such that every individual can ranked first in their class. Therefore the key implication is that non-cognitive skills such as confidence, perseverance and resilience have large effects on achievement. Rank can be thought of as just one factor that impacts on these behaviours, however there are many other interventions that could have positive effects on all individuals within a group and not just those above the median.
The rank effect also has implications relating to informational transparency and productivity. To improve productivity it would be optimal for teachers/managers to highlight an individual’s local rank position if that individual had a high local rank. If an individual is in a high performing peer group and therefore may have a low local rank but be of high rank generally a manager should make this general rank more salient. Finally, for individuals who have low general and local ranks, managers should focus on absolute attainment and make rank less salient, or draw attention to other tasks where the individual have higher ranks.
‘The importance of ordinal rank position’ by Richard Murphy and Dr Felix Weinhardt is as working paper by the Centre for Economic Performance.
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Richard Murphy is currently a Research Officer at the London School of Economics, based in the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP).
Felix Weinhardt is currently ESRC postdoctoral fellow in Economics at the London School of Economics, based in the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP).