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Study: Older Age Offers Advantage in Standardized Testing

Over the years, studies have shown that standardized exams such as the ACT and SAT tend to favor wealthier students. Now, experts are pointing to yet another factor that gives select applicants an edge in standardized testing: age.

In his recently released article, Pablo A. Peña, an assistant instructional professor in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, suggests that older students perform better on exams including the ACT and SAT—even in instances where the age difference is merely a few months.

“Older children typically perform better on academic achievement tests than younger students in the same classes,” Peña writes. “Time and again, studies looking at an array of countries, grade spans, and subjects have found that age differences of even a few months do matter.”


Peña’s study examines a variety of settings—including elementary and secondary schools and college admissions—across the world where standardized testing is used as a metric for academic achievement. In one particular setting, he found that the oldest students in each grade, who were born in January, consistently earned higher scores on standardized tests than the youngest students, who were born 11 months later, in December.

“These age-based differences mean that, in places with academic tracking, students who are older for their grade are more likely to end up in the more demanding and more academically oriented programs,” Peña writes. “In comprehensive systems, relatively older students are more likely to attend more selective institutions than younger students—particularly within disadvantaged groups.”


The study of age advantages in academics isn’t new. Back in the early 1900’s, Godfrey Thomson, a British psychologist, pioneered an intelligence test to assess students’ verbal and mathematical reasoning ability. Using the test results, Thomson selected about a dozen students and gave them free spots in secondary schools “as an experiment.” Thomson’s tests were designed to measure aptitude and examine the connection between school assignments and social status.

But Thomson’s tests also revealed another finding that aligns with Peña’s: age played a significant role in the measure of students’ intellectual ability. In an effort to account for age differences, Thomson introduced a formula, known as the “age allowance,” that adds or subtracts a few points for every month of age in how each student’s Intelligence Quotient is calculated.

“An age allowance is a simple idea,” Peña writes. “Think of the growth charts that pediatricians use to assess the height and weight of a child, which track those measures by the child’s age, in months. To create that chart, someone collected information from many children and recorded their exact age. With many observations, it is possible to compute an average score for every age in months. The age allowance is simply the adjustment for the trend in scores due to age.”

When it comes to admissions, many institutions have utilized an “age allowance” to help level the playing field. But some critics argue that an age allowance isn’t really all that fair.

“Leveling the playing field in admissions doesn’t erase the differences in test scores and GPA after admission,” Peña writes. “On average, younger students will still perform worse than their older classmates.”

And while age allowances can make admissions fairer, the students who benefit from them actually tend to do worse than students who don’t benefit at all.

“That is not because they are worse students; rather, it’s because such allowances don’t follow students into the classroom,” Peña writes. “Once they are admitted, students ‘thereafter take all internal and external examinations at the same time, and the younger would never again get an age allowance.’”


So, if age allowances aren’t really working, what solutions do institutions have at their hand to make admissions fairer when it comes to age?

“To overcome our collective action problem, we can make age allowances at the source,” Peña writes. “Test creators and test administrators don’t face the tradeoff between fair admissions and institutional ranking. They also observe all test takers and are well-positioned to determine how big or small the ‘bump’ to younger students should be.”

Additionally, Peña warns about the practice of “redshirting,” where parents choose a later date for their children to start kindergarten—a common practice among white children from high-income families.

“… by making redshirting less appealing, age allowances could simultaneously save resources and help level the playing field—a rare chance to enhance efficiency and equity at the same time,” Peña writes.

Sources: Education Next, Inside Higher Ed


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