(Betts, 2010).

Countries differ widely in the way they track students 1 but almost all education

systems in practice feature some kind of tracking. Proponents argue that the creation of

more homogeneous classes increases efficiency by allowing educators to tailor lessons to students’

specific needs. Opponents, on the other hand, fear that misclassification of students is often

rife—especially when students are tracked at an early age—and that tracking aggravates initial


In this paper we exploit a policy reform implemented during the 1970s in one of Germany’s

federal states, Lower Saxony. While most German states continued the tracking of students after

fourth grade, the reform shifted the timing of tracking from grade four to grade six (roughly ages

ten and twelve, respectively). This was achieved between 1972 and 1982 through the introduction

of a new intermediate school, the orientation stage 2 (henceforth, OS). We investigate the effects

of this reform on (1) levels of educational attainment and (2) the intergenerational transmission of

education, what we will refer to as the gradient between parental education and own education. 3

This is done based on difference-in-differences (DD)-estimators that compare changes in levels

and gradients across cohorts and across states.

On average, the reform neither increased years of education nor the likelihood of being eligible

to apply for university nor university graduation.

We find, however, that the reform had a

significant negative effect on the gradient in terms of years of education (which is measured

as the time usually required to obtain the highest degree attained): the gradient in years of

education decreased by about two-thirds to three-fourths of a year. This effect is entirely driven

by males for which the gap in years of education decreased by one to 1.3 years, accounted for

by an increase for males with uneducated parents by 0.3 years and a decrease for males with

educated parents by about one year. We find that the overall effect is driven by both changes in

the composition of males eligible for university and the composition of males that obtain tertiary

degrees but that the former effect is much larger.

We rule out several alternative explanations for our finding by systematically changing the

underlying sample of individuals. Importantly, we show that our results cannot be explained by

systematic differences in levels and trends in pre-primary enrollment, differences in the pace and

timing of Germany’s educational expansion, or changes in family characteristics. Overall, our

finding of a negative effect of the reform on the intergenerational transmission of education is

remarkably robust to a number of tests we conduct.

The German reform we study offers a particularly well-suited setting to study the effects of

tracking: education policies in Germany are to a large extent the responsibility of the states

while the federal government is in charge of most other policy areas that may affect educational

outcomes. Hence, our analysis is unlikely to be subject to confounding trends in unobserved

1 For instance, countries differ in the age at which students are tracked and in whether tracking occurs within

schools (i.e. sorting students into different classrooms as in the United States and Canada) or across schools (i.e.

sending students to different types of schools as in some European countries).

2 In German: Orientierungsstufe.

3 We define the gradient as the gap in educational outcomes between individuals with educated parents and

those with uneducated parents.


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