Older students do better in the long term, study suggests

12 September 2017
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According to a new study co-authored by University of Toronto Scarborough economist Elizabeth Dhuey, older students in class perform better at school and are more likely to attend post-secondary school and graduate from an elite university.

The study, by Dhuey, an associate professor of economics, and a team of three economists from U.S.-based universities, was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It followed differences between Florida children born just before and after the Sept. 1 cut-off date to start kindergarten. Dhuey says what was surprising about the data is that the effect is fairly significant and is experienced across all socioeconomic groups.

“What we found in this study is that gap persists throughout their school careers, so they end up being more likely to attend a post-secondary school and graduate from an elite university.”, Dhuey said.

While past studies have shown that older children do better in school, there’s been some debate as to whether the effect disappears over time. This study is unique because of the high-quality nature of the data and the fact it looked at the long-term effects by following students throughout their academic careers and into university.
Dhuey suggests older children could be enjoying small advantages from getting a head start, which continues over
the years. It’s not clear how these gaps can be resolved, she says.

Notably, and somewhat controversially, Dhuey’s past research has been used as evidence to support academic redshirting, which is the practice of parents delaying entrance into kindergarten for their children born late in the year (for example December-born children for those living in Ontario). Her research was also cited by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.

Dhuey says it’s important that parents understand the effect and meet with their child’s teacher early on to talk about how to mitigate it. But they shouldn’t panic – it’s not a predictor of whether their child will be at a severe disadvantage.

“It’s important to remember these are on-average statistics, and that there are plenty of December-born children who are doing just fine,” she says.

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