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Delaying the age of tracking does not facilitate educational pathways

When placed for a longer period in a common core syllabus system, the weakest students eventually experiment less smooth upper secondary trajectories. This is one of the unexpected conclusions of the doctoral thesis in socio-economics by Joëlle Latina, which she successfully defended on 13 April 2015 at the University of Geneva. This research drew upon administrative data from Geneva recording the transitions between compulsory education and post-compulsory training of all pupils in the canton for twelve years.

It is not always possible to use exhaustive data and benefit from a natural experiment, i.e. one not provoked artificially for research purposes. But this is the context in which Joëlle Latina, UAS research fellow at the Geneva Haute école de gestion, was able to work, in a project conducted by the Leading House in Education Economics of the University of Geneva, associated with the IP204 project within the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES.

With the help of Professor José Ramirez, and with Yves Flückiger, future rector of the University of Geneva, as an additional thesis co-director, Joëlle Latina was able to access the administrative data of the canton of Geneva for almost 44,000 students, i.e. all young people who entered middle school from 1993 to 2004. The data paint a sociodemographic portrait of pupils from these twelve cohorts, and make it possible to analyse their educational routes for up to three years after they leave compulsory schooling.

This study confirms the effects of social reproduction on academic success. Non-francophone children with most recent immigration backgrounds, little social capital and less parental support, have more disrupted trajectories leading to fewer upper secondary level qualifications than more privileged students.

Tracking at age 12 or 13

The research provides original insight into a less well-charted area. The data make it possible to compare two types of schooling: streaming pupils into several levels from age 12, as was already commonplace in most establishments in the canton at the time, and tracking pupils one year later, as was practised by three establishments in Geneva until the inter-canton harmonisation of compulsory education put an end to the experiment in 2011.

This comparison lead to a finding which surprised Joëlle Latina and her thesis supervisors: delayed tracking was not beneficial to the low achievers; their likelihood of changing routes – sometimes even several times – in the three years following the end of compulsory education is 12 percentage points higher than that of those placed in a lower track one year earlier.

"While the literature points out that early tracking tends to increase school performance inequality, our results suggest that delaying tracking can reduce the smoothness of subsequent school transitions and particularly so for low ability students," states Joëlle Latina in her thesis.

Why these different pathways? According to Joëlle Latina, two theories could explain why the educational trajectories of weaker pupils have more ruptures and changes when they study alongside better-performing children for longer.

Social contrast and status characteristics

The theory of social contrast says that individuals tend to compare themselves to those around them and therefore to share the same aspirations. This could come to the detriment of students on the lower end of the ability distribution, who would find themselves unable to achieve their ambitions and be forced to change courses once they meet with failure.

According to the status characteristics theory, the confidence that individuals may or may not have in their own skills is influenced by common beliefs about the group to which they belong. Thus the prejudice that girls are less performing at maths leads them to underestimate themselves and to be less likely to study this subject than boys. Applied to the situation examined here, this phenomenon is said to encourage pupils who transfer early to pre-vocational schooling to belittle themselves, and those tracked at a later stage to overestimate themselves. For those who opt for academic studies without having all of the required potential, this false perception is said to lead to more referral errors.

Trajectories of varying smoothness

Joëlle Latina's thesis also examines other aspects of transitions between compulsory education and further educational pathways. She is particularly interested in the trajectories of apprentices and in route changes during the three years after leaving middle school. Again, social factors have a profound influence. Generally, the good students prefer the academic option to apprenticeships. However, when they opt for vocational training, high track students have smoother educational trajectories, with fewer changes.

Finally, she examines the transitions within vocational training between pure classroom education and apprenticeships, a type of transition which has not been studied in depth but which concerns around a fifth of young people in commercial training in Geneva. All other factors being equal, changing from business school to dual vocational education and training (VET) increases the likelihood of obtaining an upper secondary diploma; by contrast, the concerned people lose an average of one semester in the course of the changeover.

Implications for public policies

The researcher maintains that the horizontal permeability of the education system needs to be improved, so that changes can take place without loss of time, notably by validating crosscutting skills, as Germany is currently testing in its DECVET project.

As regards compulsory education, she recommends more specifically targeting disadvantaged groups, and improving counselling in order to avoid dead ends. She believes that better information on learning through internships is needed, and that more emphasis should be placed on contextualised (rather than abstract) skills when dealing with pupils not destined for academic studies.

A bright future

After the thesis defence, the five jury members praised Joëlle Latina's work as "far above average". She has shown a "solid methodology", according to Rainer Winkelmann, professor at the University of Zurich, and "has a bright future ahead of her", according to Yves Flückiger. In the immediate future, the young researcher intends to continue in the same research line by integrating longitudinal and comparative data.

>> Latina, Joëlle (2015). Upper secondary school transitions : an empirical analysis. Supervised by José V. Ramirez and Yves Flückiger. University of Geneva