Institute for Economic and Social Research

Seminar | Peng Zhang, Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen)


Title: The Long-Run Educational Impacts of Gifted Classrooms

Speaker:Peng Zhang, Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen)

Time: Nov. 26 (Fri.), 9:30 – 10:30 am

About the speaker:

Peng Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. His main research areas are environmental, development, health, and labor economics. He has published in various economics journals, including the Economic JournalJournal of Development Economics, and Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. He obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016.



School tracking, the practice of dividing students into different classrooms based on their prior academic achievement, is common in many countries such as the United States, Canada and China. Despite its prevalence, evidence on whether it improves students’ educational success is mixed, and most previous studies examine its impacts

on short-term academic performance. This paper provides some of the first causal evidence on how placing high school students into high-achieving or “gifted”classrooms affect their contemporaneous and longer-term academic performance as well as college choice. We focus on the Chinese educational system, where at the beginning of their first year of high school, students are placed in gifted classrooms if they score above a certain cutoff on prior common exams. Compared to regular classrooms, gifted classrooms provide students with exposure to higher-achieving peers

and higher-quality teachers, a different teaching style and smaller class sizes.


We collected rich and unique administrative data on all students enrolled in a large and selective Chinese high school from the years 2015 to 2017. Our data provide us with detailed information on students’ test scores throughout high school, performance on the university entrance exam and the type of universities they enroll in. To identify the causal effect of gifted classrooms, we use a regression discontinuity design which compares students who score marginally above the cutoff on the classroom placement exam and are thus assigned to gifted classrooms, to those who score marginally below the cutoff and are assigned to regular classrooms.

We find that assignment to a gifted classroom raises students’ mathematics performance in their first year of high school by 23 percent of a standard deviation. These effects are long-lasting as we document significant and comparable increases in math performance until the last year of high school. Effects on performance in Chinese and English language subjects are more muted. At the end of their last year of high school, all students in China have to take a university entrance exam which determines the university they can enroll in. We find that gifted classroom assignment increases students’ scores on this high-stakes exam by 28 percent of a standard deviation. We further show that gifted classrooms raise the likelihood that students enroll in highly selective universities by 17 percentage points. 

Taken together, our findings indicate that high school gifted classrooms substantially improve academic success both in the short and long-term.

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