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Class rank -- as far back as third grade -- can predict which students are more likely than others to take Advanced Placement classes, graduate from high school, enroll in college and graduate from college.

So concludes a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The sample used for the study consists of students who took their third grade state examinations for the first time in Texas between 1995 and 2008. The focus was "on students taking their third grade exam for the first time to alleviate concerns regarding the endogenous relationship between class rank and previous retention." The study also focused on students taking their exams in English, not Spanish. The sample was 47 percent white, 35 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Black.

For each student, a class rank (within their elementary school) was assigned.

On subsequent AP courses, "we see that elementary school achievement rank positively impacts the probability of taking AP Calculus and AP English. In both cases, these effects are driven by being highly ranked among classmates during elementary school. The pattern and magnitude of the estimates are similar for taking both AP subjects, with students around the 75th percentile being around 2 percentage points more likely to take AP compared with the median student."

Similar patterns were found with going to college (any Texas public institution) and finishing college, and with postgraduation earnings.

The significance of the research, the authors say, is that it points the power of class rank at an early age over the quality of a school.

"We demonstrate that a student’s rank among their peers at a young age has long lasting impacts. This affects a student’s performance in school including tests, courses taken, progress through toward graduation. Ultimately, it also affects student graduation from high school. Relative position affects the decision to enroll in post-secondary education. Most strikingly, it affects a student’s real earnings in their mid-20s," the paper says.

The study was conducted by Jeffrey T. Denning of Brigham Young University, Richard Murphy of the University of Texas at Austin and Felix Weinhardt of DIW Berlin.

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