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Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition

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  • Courtney A. Collins
  • Li Gan

Abstract

This paper examines schools' decisions to sort students into different classes and how those sorting processes impact student achievement. There are two potential effects that result from schools creating homogeneous classes--a "tracking effect," which allows teachers to direct their focus to a more narrow range of students, and a peer effect, which causes a particular student's achievement to be influenced by the quality of peers in his classroom. In schools with homogeneous sorting, both the tracking effect and the peer effect should benefit high performing students. However, the effects would work in opposite directions for a low achieving student; he would benefit from the tracking effect, but the peer effect should decrease his score. This paper seeks to determine the net effect for low performing students in order to understand the full implications of sorting on all students. We use a unique student-level data set from Dallas Independent School District that links students to their actual classes and reveals the entire distribution of students within a classroom. We find significant variation in sorting practices across schools and use this variation to identify the effect of sorting on student achievement. Implementing a unique instrumental variables approach, we find that sorting homogeneously by previous performance significantly improves students' math and reading scores. This effect is present for students across the score distribution, suggesting that the net effect of sorting is beneficial for both high and low performing students. We also explore the effects of sorting along other dimensions, such as gifted and talented status, special education status, and limited English proficiency.

Suggested Citation

  • Courtney A. Collins & Li Gan, 2013. "Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition," NBER Working Papers 18848, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18848 Note: ED
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Weili Ding & Steven F. Lehrer, 2007. "Do Peers Affect Student Achievement in China's Secondary Schools?," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 89(2), pages 300-312, May.
    2. Eide, Eric & Showalter, Mark H., 1998. "The effect of school quality on student performance: A quantile regression approach," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 58(3), pages 345-350, March.
    3. Dubin, Jeffrey A & McFadden, Daniel L, 1984. "An Econometric Analysis of Residential Electric Appliance Holdings and Consumption," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 52(2), pages 345-362, March.
    4. Ehrenberg, Ronald G. & Brewer, Dominic J., 1994. "Do school and teacher characteristics matter? Evidence from High School and Beyond," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 13(1), pages 1-17, March.
    5. Julie Berry Cullen & Randall Reback, 2006. "Tinkering Toward Accolades: School Gaming Under a Performance Accountability System," NBER Working Papers 12286, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Laura M. Argys & Daniel I. Rees & Dominic J. Brewer, 1996. "Detracking America's schools: Equity at zero cost?," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 15(4), pages 623-645.
    7. Brown, Byron W & Saks, Daniel H, 1975. "The Production and Distribution of Cognitive Skills within Schools," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 83(3), pages 571-593, June.
    8. Joshua D. Angrist & Victor Lavy, 1999. "Using Maimonides' Rule to Estimate the Effect of Class Size on Scholastic Achievement," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(2), pages 533-575.
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    Cited by:

    1. Tommaso Agasisti & Patrizia Falzetti, 2017. "Between-classes sorting within schools and test scores: an empirical analysis of Italian junior secondary schools," International Review of Economics, Springer;Happiness Economics and Interpersonal Relations (HEIRS), vol. 64(1), pages 1-45, March.

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    JEL classification:

    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education

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