How The Relative Age Effect Impacts Educational Attainment (And How We Can Fix it)

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David Chodounsky had always been a talented alpine skier, nearly making the U.S. ski team out of high school and winning the NCAA slalom title as a freshman. In 2016, Chodounsky had a career year. He placed fourth at Val d’Isere, a premier skiing competition, and finished the year ranked top 15 in the world. Consequently, Chodounsky was invited to join the 2018 Olympic team, and ultimately led it to a respectable team finish of ninth, highlighted by snatching 18th place in the men’s slalom (out of more than 50 competitors). But Chodounsky’s success was not only a product of hard work and skill: he grew up with a hidden advantage. Chodounsky was born in June. The age cutoff for men’s skiing is set on January first in the U.S., so he was always older than nearly half of his competitors and, as a result, bigger and more mature than them. Chodounsky's experience was not unique among his 13 Olympic teammates. Only one of these skiers was born between October and December, while a striking 10 were born before July (Brookshire, 2019).

Chodounsky’s story is a textbook example of the Relative Age Effect (RAE), a phenomenon where people born closer to an age cutoff are perceived as more talented than their peers at a young age, when, in reality, they are just older and more developed. These relatively older children then receive better instruction and more opportunities and therefore become more successful than those slightly younger than them. The RAE has been observed in many other professional sports other than alpine skiing (Jakobsson, 2021). More alarmingly, the RAE has been proven to have robust effects on student’s educational success, future educational attainment, and often their financial prosperity as an adult. Therefore, to combat the RAE, all standardized tests, including the ACT and SAT, must have an age-related score adjustment. Furthermore, more American parents should “redshirt” their children if they are born after July, meaning that their children would wait and attend school with the grade below them.

The Relative Age Effect in Education

The RAE functions the same in education as it does in youth sports. Younger students are perceived as less mature and smart than their relatively older counterparts and thus receive inferior educational instruction. Furthermore, they misbehave more often and are seen as troublemakers. This effect is disturbingly larger for children lower on the socioeconomic ladder, adding yet another obstacle for the most disadvantaged students. Studies have shown that “relatively older schoolchildren in a primary school class (6–12 years) score significantly higher on academic achievement tests than their relatively younger peers” (Urruticoechea, 2021). The RAE is likely “the trigger for relatively younger schoolchildren to have the highest repetition rate” (ibid). At age six, this effect can be particularly pronounced, as half a year represents a substantial proportion of a child's life at that stage, allowing for significant developmental changes.

Additionally, younger children who may struggle academically during this critical period might internalize feelings of inferiority compared to their older peers, creating enduring and impactful perceptions of their intelligence. As a result, the RAE is a “potentially modifiable causal factor for child and adolescent risk of mental health problems” (Broughton, 2022). This phenomenon is so powerful that one study recommends “any intervention should be applied” to prevent this dip in the self-esteem of relatively younger students (ibid). The mental health problems that younger students experience can create a detrimental feedback loop, where increased stress negatively impacts academic performance, leading to further stress. Consequently, these early childhood mental health strains may manifest as persistent issues throughout their life.

Unsurprisingly, the RAE influences the job market, where relatively younger individuals, perhaps as a result of being behind academically, face challenges in professional success. The CEOs of S&P 500 companies are disproportionately likely to not be born in June or July (Du, 2012). Similarly, relatively younger mutual fund managers tend to experience less success compared to their older counterparts, making nearly 0.5% lower returns, a significant number when dealing with large sums of money (Solomon, 2018).

How We Can Fix the Relative Age Effect in Education?

Fortunately, there are proven ways to combat the relative age effect. First, all standardized assessments must have an age-related score adjustment. Second, the youngest children (in the U.S., those with birthdays in June, July, and August) should be held back a year.

Age adjustments may seem unconventional, but they have been a longstanding practice in standardized testing since as early as the 1920s. In fact, omitting them would be illogical. Consider a child who is 11 and a half years old; it's reasonable to expect that they might be taller than a peer who is 11 years old, not because they will necessarily always be taller, but because they have simply had more time to grow. Age allowances have been empirically validated: just 12 months of age bumps scores on the ACT – a test difficult to drastically improve on – by as much as three percentiles (Peña, 2022).

Moreover, age adjustments have demonstrated their efficacy in the context of nationwide standardized tests. A prime illustration of this is the Transfer Procedure Test administered to pupils in Northern Ireland at age 11. This assessment, crucial in determining eligibility for admission to prestigious grammar schools, incorporates age adjustments to ensure fairness and accuracy in the evaluation process. By accounting for the developmental differences associated with varying ages, it successfully mitigates bias favoring older students (Sharp, 2009). As a result, the Northern Irish school system is more meritorious. Perhaps, the Northern Irish economy is buoyed by this elimination of the RAE.

While age adjustments represent a step towards addressing the relative age effect, they may not suffice on their own. This is why younger students born in June, July, and August should "redshirt" kindergarten, meaning that they delay attending school by a year, thereby becoming older relative to their peers. As demonstrated previously, being older is likely to enhance their academic performance. Furthermore, a study conducted in Denmark revealed that even in an academic environment where the relative age effect is less pronounced, holding students back yielded significant improvements in mental health (Dee and Sievertsen, 2015). One might argue that redshirting simply transfers the relative age effect to students born in April and May, who then become the new youngest students. However, this assumption is incorrect because students born in April and May are typically old enough to have reached a developmental threshold where the disparities between younger and older students are less pronounced, thereby reducing the impact of the RAE (Cameron and Wilson, 1990). Plus, this practice would only be used to help the students who are still straggling behind even after standardized testing age-adjustments.


Much like how David Chodounsky and his relatively older Olympic teammates benefited from an unfair age advantage, leaving potentially more talented but younger athletes at a disadvantage, older students in America similarly navigate a system that favors them, often propelling them towards greater professional achievements than their younger peers. The RAE has a shocking impact on students’ academic performance, mental health, and, consequently, their professional success. We must stop overlooking its powerful effects, and start addressing them with proven methods like age-adjustments on standardized tests and “redshirting.”


Brookshire, Bethany. “Why Many Olympic Athletes Have Early Birthdays.” Science News Explores, 3 Dec. 2019,

Broughton, Thomas, et al. “Relative age in the school year and risk of mental health problems in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 64, no. 1, 15 Aug. 2022, pp. 185–196,

Cameron, Mary Bridget, and Barry J. Wilson. “The effects of chronological age, gender, and delay of entry on academic achievement and retention: Implications for academic redshirting.” Psychology in the Schools, vol. 27, no. 3, July 1990, pp. 260–263,<260::aid-pits2310270313>;2-v.

“David Chodounsky - Player Profile - Alpine Skiing.” Eurosport, Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

“David Chodounsky.” U.S. Ski and Snowboard, 25 June 2017,

Dee, Thomas, and Hans Henrik Sievertsen. “The gift of time? school starting age and mental health.” Health Economics, vol. 27, no. 5, Oct. 2015, pp. 781–802,

Du, Qianqian, et al. “The relative-age effect and career success: Evidence from corporate CEOS.” Economics Letters, vol. 117, no. 3, Dec. 2012, pp. 660–662,

“FIS Alpine Ski Races, Val d’isère.” SeeValdIsere.Com, Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

Jakobsson, Johan, et al. “Darwinian selection discriminates against young athletes: The relative age effect in relation to sporting performance.” Sports Medicine - Open, vol. 7, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2021,

Peña, Pablo A. “End The Birthday Bias.” Education Next, 30 June 2022,

Pyeongchang 2018 Men’s Slalom Results - Olympic Alpine-Skiing, Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

Sharp, Caroline, et al. International Thematic Probe: The Influence of Relative Age on Learner Attainment and Development, National Foundation for Educational Research, Feb. 2009,

Solomon, David, et al. “What a Difference a (Birth) Month Makes: The Relative Age Effect and Fund Manager Performance.” The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, 13 Mar. 2018, Urruticoechea, Alar, et al. “The relative age effects in educational development: A systematic review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 17, 26 Aug. 2021, p. 8966,

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How The Relative Age Effect Impacts Educational Attainment (And How We Can Fix it)
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