We investigate the effect on student achievement of a remedial education reform recently introduced in upper secondary schools in Italy. Prior to its implementation, low-performing teenage students used to be given an ‘educational debt’ in one or more subjects. Such debt had to be recovered with no clear deadline or assessment during the student educational career. In response to increasing concerns about the low performance of Italian adolescent students, in 2007 the Italian Ministry of Education decided to re-introduce a remedial exam procedure already in place before school year 1993/94. This paper assesses whether a crucial feature of the reform, which is the threat of grade retention, has had any effect on student proficiency. To this end, we exploit the quasi experimental variation that results from geographical discontinuities in the implementation of the reform. Unlike the rest of the country, schools located in a well defined area in Northern Italy (province of Trento), which enjoys some degree of autonomy regarding education policies, opted out of the new progression system. We use this geographical variation to examine the effect of being at risk of grade retention on short-run achievement gains. We find positive effects on student achievement of children attending academic-oriented tracks but negative effects for students on technical/vocational tracks, thus suggesting a pattern of differential returns depending on the socio-economic background.
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