Leave them kids alone! National exams as a political tool

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In this paper, we show how results in state administered university entrance standardized exams in Portugal are sensitive to the electoral cycle. Using individual data for all senior high school students taking national exams between the years 2004 and 2018, we reveal that whenever exams occur in years of upcoming legislative elections, the average senior high-school student grade increases by 1.17 and 0.63—on a 0 to 20 scale, in the core disciplines of Mathematics and Portuguese, respectively. Furthermore, the probability of passing the exams, that is, of getting more than 9.5 out of 20, increases by ten and eight percentage points in those same exams. Neither the quality of students nor the leniency of grading in these years explain this rise in pre-election exam grades. Robustness tests using early legislative elections, held, exceptionally, before national exams, and therefore not anticipated by those who arguably manipulate the exams, show that there was no inflation of exam scores in those years. Furthermore, we highlight that exam inflation can be a powerful electoral tool, with a unit increase in the municipality average score in Mathematics and Portuguese exams associated with a 1.46 percentage point rise in the vote share of the sitting government.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-426
JournalPublic Choice
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Education
  • Elections
  • Political Business Cycles
  • Standardized Exams


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