Achievement gains from attendance at selective high schools
AffiliationMelbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2018 Dr Brendan Houng
Academically selective high schools are a polarizing topic in education policy, despite only having a small presence in some Australian states. They appear successful. The schools regularly top annual school rankings of university entrance results, but this is perhaps unsurprising given that their students are admitted based on their performances on an entrance exam. This thesis asks whether selective high schools improve their students’ university entrance results beyond what they would have achieved otherwise. The main chapter is a case study from an anonymized Australian state that follows high-achievement students through high school. The key challenge is finding a group of non-selective students comparable to those who attend selective schools. For additional background, the thesis explored the following themes: the historical development of selective high schools, the premise that the schools cater to gifted and talented students, and the high levels of demand for the schools within current trends in educational policy. The thesis provides the first estimates of the selective school effect (roughly contemporaneous with Zen 2016) from matching and regression discontinuity approaches in the Australian context, which are improved statistical methods compared with that of previous research (e.g. regression analyses from Lu and Rickard, 2014). The estimates point to small positive effects at best on university entrance results from attending the selective schools. Overall, the small selective school effect appears to reflect the high levels of educational aspiration of both selective students as well as applicants who attended other schools. Both groups of students appear to be among the most driven and motivated, being disproportionately from immigrant and socio-economically advantaged backgrounds and having implicitly signaled an aspirational intent by applying to the schools. Lastly, the thesis expands on one aspect of the selective schools, whereby many of their students experience a decrease in within-school achievement ranks from attending a school with high-achievement peers. In a more general context, the thesis assesses the effect from changes in local ranks on later achievement for students who transitioned from primary to secondary school. The results indicate that perceived increases in local rank have a negative effect on standardized test scores, suggesting that students reduced their allocation of effort in response to random increases in rank. The new empirical evidence from the thesis supports the view that selective schools represent a positive achievement ideal for their students. Recent public policy discourse on the selective schools has included calls for expansion of the system to the primary school level in one state, and criticisms of a hyper-competitive culture at the schools, including suggestions of unfair entry due to excessive tutoring on the part of applicants. The research positively contributes to the discourse by providing historical context, identifying the relevant issues and articulating the potential indirect consequences of these policies.
Keywordseducation; selective schools; academic selection; academic achievement
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