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Is It Still an Econ Course? The Effect of
a Standardized Personal Finance Test
on the Learning of Economics

WP 22-03

Stephen Day
Virginia Commonwealth University
Evelyn Nunes
Virginia Commonwealth University
Bruno Sultanum
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

Is It Still an Econ Course? The Effect of a
Standardized Personal Finance Test on the
Learning of Economics
Stephen Day∗1 , Evelyn Nunes2 and Bruno Sultanum†3
1

Center for Economic Education, Virginia Commonwealth University
2

Department of Economics, Virginia Commonwealth University
3

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
March 31, 2022

Abstract
We study the implications of mixing economics and personal finance standards
in a high school course. Using administrative, survey, and testing data on college
students, we find evidence that personal finance instruction crowds out economics
instruction. We find that students who received more instruction in economics score
almost 5% higher on an economics test. Furthermore, we estimate the effect of being
assigned a certification test in personal finance as a part of this course. The effect of
the certification test is not uniform across students. The test reduces the economics
scores of students with an SAT score one standard deviation above the mean by 5
percentage points, but increases the scores of students with SAT scores one standard
∗

Corresponding Author. Email: shday@vcu.edu
The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank
of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.
†

1

deviation below the mean by 10 percentage points. Our results emphasize the potentially idiosyncratic effects of mixing economics with personal finance.

1

Introduction

High school students in the United States are increasingly likely to take a required
course that includes instruction in both economics and personal finance. From 2018 to
2020, four more states in the United States required a personal finance course for graduation, according to the 2020 Survey of the States from the Council for Economic Education
(2018; 2020), bringing the total number up to twenty-one, while twenty-five states required
an economics course. Six states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York,
and North Dakota) reported mixing personal finance into their economics courses (CEE,
2020), while Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia
similarly mix the two subjects in their standards for economics courses. This list includes
three of the top four most populous states in the United States. Therefore, a mandatory
high school course featuring economics alongside personal finance is an increasingly common, though not a universal phenomenon.
Is mixing this content into one course good for student learning? The answer is not
obvious. On the one hand, economics and personal finance knowledge seem intuitively to
support one another. As the introduction to Virginia’s Economics and Personal Finance
course describes it, “Students need a strong, interdisciplinary foundation in economics
and personal finance to function effectively as consumers, workers, savers, investors, entrepreneurs, and active citizens” (VDOE, 2019). On the other hand, several studies have
shown that students learn economics better in a dedicated course (Walstad and Watts,
1985; Martin and Bender, 1985; Buckles and Freeman, 1984). These studies estimate the
effects of infusing economics instruction into other course material. However, they did
not investigate the interaction of economics and personal finance in a purpose-built mixed
course.
We investigated the effect of personal finance instruction and assessment upon economics learning in a high school ”Economics and Personal Finance” (EPF) course. Specifically, we investigate the effects of a high school EPF course on students’ knowledge of
2

economics by testing them at the beginning of a required college economics course, and
also looked at the students’ score in the economics course. We also analysed the differences between a course that focuses on personal finance versus one that emphasizes
economics. We used data on student characteristics obtained from the university and then
surveyed students about their experience in their EPF course in high school, including
whether they were assigned a personal finance certification test. Students take this test
based on an agreement between their school district and the W!se nonprofit, a personal
finance advocacy organization. This quasi-random assignment limits selection bias in our
sample. This data allowed us to identify the effects of various aspects of student experience
in their EPF course and answer the following questions:
1. What is the effect of personal finance instruction on student learning of economics
in a high school economics and personal finance course?
2. What is the effect of a standardized personal finance test on the learning of economics?
With the first question, our survey found that three quarters of students who took the
EPF course reported that it was “mostly about personal finance.” (If the courses had been
taught exactly according to the state standards, no students should have selected this answer.) We found that students who reported receiving an entire semester of economics
instruction in high school (as opposed to mostly learning personal finance) received higher
grades on an economics test which was given on the first day of their college economics
course. There was some evidence that learning high school economics from a teacher that
had 40+ professional development hours in teaching economics had a positive effect on
one’s final grade in a college economics course.
For the second question, around three quarters of students who took an EPF course
reported being assigned a standardized test in personal finance (an assignment decision
made at the school district level). These simple results give some reason to believe that
yes, personal finance instruction crowds out economics instruction. However, among those
who were assigned a personal finance certification test, we also found that students with
lower SAT scores actually improved their economics scores, while their higher SAT peers
reduced their economics scores.
3

We consider possible reasons for these idiosyncratic results that may inform educational policymaking, course design, and classroom instruction.

2

Literature Review

Researchers have long emphasized the importance of economic education for students
(VanFossen, 2011), and studies of high school economics courses have tried to estimate the
effect of high school economics instruction on college economics outcomes, an approach
that we continue here.1 Specifically, early studies by Reid (1983) and Palmer et al. (1979)
cast doubt on the lasting value of high school economics instruction, while studies by
Brasfield et al. (1993) and Lopus (1997) showed effects that last into and through college
courses. A review of the literature in economic education led Watts (2005) to conclude that
“a formal secondary course in economics is the safest way to improve students’ knowledge
of economics, but it is far from clear that one course in economics is enough to consider
students economically literate.”
Running contrary to the idea of a course solely devoted to economics, Morton (2006)
suggested that economics can provide “a home” for personal finance education. Similarly,
the Financial Literacy Education Commission’s Commission (2006) inaugural national
strategy document specifically recommended embedding personal finance instruction in
an economics course if a standalone course is not possible. According to the Council for
Economic Education’s biannual Survey of the States (2018; 2020), the number of states
that require personal finance content standards, or a high school personal finance course, or
that at least require schools to offer a personal finance course has been slowly but steadily
increasing since the first survey conducted in 1998. Sometimes, these requirements are
a part of a course with economics standards. For example, in 2011 Virginia mandated a
two-semester EPF course for students entering ninth grade, meaning that the vast majority
of students in Virginia public colleges and universities should now have a background in
these content areas. North Carolina passed a mandate for a similar course in 2019.
1

Note that both qualitative (Schug and Birkey, 1985; Suiter and Meszaros, 2005) and quantitative (Sosin
et al., 1997) studies suggest that even K-12 students can develop economic reasoning and improved moneysense (Chizmar and Halinski, 1983), particularly when taught by teachers trained in such concepts.

4

Few studies have investigated the interplay of personal finance and economic education per se. Several studies analyzing either economics or personal finance education have
mentioned the effects of one on the other in a more incidental fashion, with the two subjects tending to complement each other in a minor way (Walstad et al., 2010; Walstad and
Buckles, 2008; Hill and Asarta, 2016). Swinton et al. (2007) found that the students of
high school teachers who took a one-day professional development workshop in personal
finance education scored slightly higher in economics end-of-course tests. Alternatively,
Soper and Walstad (1988) found evidence that students taking a course in ”consumer economics” learned less than students taking a dedicated economics course. While these
studies may look at the efficacy of teaching economics via personal finance, they have not
considered situations where personal finance and economics are supposed to share space
in one course, which we emphasize here.
One way to investigate this interplay is by studying the effect of a national, standardized (though not state mandated) personal finance test in a shared economics and personal
finance course. Such a test is administered by W!se, a national nonprofit that promotes
personal finance education. This organization offers a financial literacy certification to
students, which is a “credential awarded to students who pass the test. The credential
demonstrates to colleges and employers that students have the knowledge and skills to be
financially savvy” (W!se, 2020a). The impact of this test on classroom instruction is not
trivial: the W!se website claims that 6 million instructional hours are dedicated each year
to prepare for the test (W!se, 2020b). The organization administers its test to approximately 400 schools in Virginia alone (personal communication, July 2020) out of a total
of 623. Based on other recent studies showing the potential efficacy of personal finance
education, it is reasonable to assume that the score gains that students exhibit on the W!se
test may correspond to real increases in classroom learning about personal finance (Kaiser
and Menkhoff, 2017; Kaiser et al., 2020).
In this study, we explore the relationship of economics and personal finance in a twosemester high school course that has an equal number of standards, and, theoretically,
equal classroom instructional time (one semester for economics and one for personal finance). By focusing on the effect of a standardized test on curriculum, we followed a
rich literature and a mixed history. First, there is evidence that a standardized test can do
5

exactly what it is designed to do: increase student knowledge in the targeted area. For
example, there was rapid increase in math scores for both Black and Latino students in the
first few years of the No Child Left Behind testing regime (Hansen et al., 2018).
However, standardized testing comes with trade-offs. Scholars have noted that with
testing also comes “curriculum narrowing.” This is when “teachers exclude from their
lesson plans the material that is not tested in an attempt to maximize the learning opportunity for students on the content of the test” (King and Zucker, 2005). Hess and Brigham
(2000) noted that standardized assessments “are not meant to suggest that only what is
on the test is important, but many schools have interpreted them this way.” Crocco and
Costigan (2007) observed that this was an especially strong tendency in social studies
classrooms where standardized testing was particularly prescribed and high-stakes. Data
from the nationwide NAEP test showed that there was less attention was devoted to social
studies instruction in areas where high-stakes testing was salient (Fitchett and Heafner,
2010; Heafner and Fitchett, 2012; Hansen et al., 2018). VanFossen (2005) demonstrated
that a subject area can be marginalized under certain conditions, especially where standardized tests are high-stakes. The presence of a relatively high-stakes personal finance
certification test in a classroom is likely to have a similar effect on classroom instruction
as do other standardized tests.
Of course, such a test is not a part of all classrooms that include both economics and
personal finance. But there is still reason to believe that personal finance might might
play an outsize role in such a course. This is because of the crucial role of teachers in
making curricular decisions (Thornton, 2005). Teachers may find that economics content
is difficult to learn how to teach. Several studies have shown that a teacher must take three
or four economics courses before the added knowledge turns up in student test scores
(Allgood and Walstad, 1999; Walstad and Watts, 2015). Additionally, teachers may be
more compelled by the apparent practical benefits of personal finance content.

6

3

Data

Our data was gathered from college students at Virginia Commonwealth University
who took an introductory level course in economics between spring 2019 and spring 2020.2
These students were from diverse backgrounds and are not necessarily majoring in economics. There were students from the School of Business, the College of Humanities and
Sciences, the School of Education, and several other departments across the university.
Using one’s own students to study the effects of economics instruction is conventional for
this type of study, as described by Myatt and Waddell (1990) and Brasfield et al. (1993).
We delivered a twenty-question pretest on the first day of course. These questions were
taken from the Test of Economic Literacy (TEL) by the Council for Economic Education
(Walstad et al., 2001). The TEL was created to assess high school-level economic understanding, and it is commonly used in the literature for the same purpose as in this paper
(Gleason and Van Scyoc, 1995; Koshal et al., 2008; Grimes et al., 2010). Studies on the
learning of economics and personal finance have used questions drawn from standardized
tests rather than using the entire test (Harter and Harter, 2009; Walstad et al., 2010). This
is a technique to increase participants’ motivation to respond in the school context, where
teachers and students are often tired of too many tests. We did not offer the students a posttest for a similar reason; we did not want to over-test them. We use the word ”pretest” to
emphasize that the test was taken before they got any college economics instruction, and
to differentiate it from the W!se test.
We also estimated the effect of our independent variables on students’ final college
course grade, an approach that follows previous studies on the effect of high school economics (Myatt and Waddell, 1990; Lopus and Maxwell, 1994). Though this does not
qualify as panel data or allow measurement of achievement over time, but it did allow us
to look at the data using two different dependent variables, and to see if experiences from
high school had an effect further into the future.
Every student present during the first course took the test, since completing it earned
them participation points, and was done in class. We also obtained IRB authorization for
this study, including access to administrative data on each student. The variables we collect
2

Either Introduction to Economics or Principles of Microeconomics.

7

from the university are: gender, ethnicity, first generation college student, SAT score, and
high school GPA.
In addition to the test, we delivered a voluntary survey (appendix B) regarding their
EPF high school course. The questions were formulated to be extremely straightforward:
whether they were assigned the W!se test, whether their course was mostly about personal finance or if it split equal time with economics, whether they took the course online
or in-person, and what their high school EPF’s teacher’s name was. This last item was
cross-referenced against VCEE’s database of professional development attendees to determine which students had VCEE-trained teachers. The survey had a high take-up rate, with
83.8% student completion. The group of students who completed the survey was statistically similar to our entire sample, an indication that response bias did not unduly distort
our results (see appendix A).
Since not all high school students will go to college and take an economics course, the
benefits of the economics instruction (which we found to be significant prior to the course
as measured by the pretest scores) may be manifested among the students who stopped
their economics education at high school. Unfortunately, our data set only contained students who went to college and took economics, so we were unable to observe whether the
instruction would, or would not, impact students outside their classroom.

3.1

Summary Statistics

Table 2 shows some relevant statistics for the students in our sample (to see all the
variables we collected, refer to appendix ??).
The test average was 56%, the average final course grade was 78%, the average SAT
was 1141 in 1600-point scale, the and average high school GPA was 3.52. Female students
were the majority, comprising 57% of our sample, while White, Black, and Latino students
represented 41%, 21%, and 14% of the sample, respectively. Almost a third were firstgeneration in college, and international students comprise a small share, only 2%.
Among students who completed the survey, 73% reported taking the W!se test in high
school, and 89% reported taking an EPF course (Table 3). It is safe to say that the majority
of Virginia students who take the EPF course take a mandated personal finance test.
8

Table 1: Summary Statistics
Variable
Mean
Pretest score
0.56
Final grade
78.31
SAT (1600 pt scale)
1141.04
HS GPA
3.52
Female
0.57
Black
0.21
White
0.41
Latino
0.14
International
0.02
First generation
0.31
Survey
0.84
W!se
0.73
EPF
0.89
EPF online
0.20
Teacher trained by VCEE
0.26

Table 2: Grade Average
Variable
Grade
Pretest score
56%
Final course grade
78%
SAT (1600 pt scale)
1141

Table 3: Participation Rate
Variable
Share (%)
Survey
84
EPF course
89
W!se test
73

9

As evidence of personal finance crowding out economics teaching, we found that
68.3% of students who took an EPF course in high school reported that their course was
“mostly personal finance,” and just 28.9% said they were taught an even blend of economics and personal finance, as delineated in the state standards (Table 4).
Table 4: Test scores among students who took an EPF course
Course type
Share (%) pretest (%)
Mostly personal finance
68.3
54.9
Economics for a semester
28.9
58.7
Other
2.8
56.9
Pretest performance varied depending on the type of EPF course taken, with students
scoring higher if they had a whole semester of economics instruction. This difference
can indicate that more economics instruction leads to better learning of economics. In the
following sections, we control for other variables to see if this result still holds.3
We also observed that a lower share of White students (68%) took the personal finance
certification test than non-white(76%), as shown in Table 5. There are also relatively more
First-generation college students taking the test than non-First-generation students.
Table 5: Share of Students taking the W!se test
Demographics
Share
White
0.68
Asian
0.78
Black/African American
0.76
Hispanic/Latino
0.76
Two or More Races
0.87
International
0.25
Female
0.74
Male
0.72
First-generation
0.77
Multigeneration
0.71
3

This difference is significant in a 95% confidence interval (see appendix A).

10

4

Methodology

To answer our research question on whether personal finance instruction crowds out
student learning in economics, we regressed the pretest score on the EPF course experience (amount of economics studied) and W!se test-taking while controlling for demographic differences and ability. We hypothesize that the presence of a mandated personal
finance industry certification test will decrease time spent on economics instruction, with
a downward pressure on economics achievement.
In our survey, in addition to asking whether a student took a personal finance certification test, we asked about the focus on personal finance and economics in the high school
course. As Soper and Walstad (1988) argue, a course with a focus on personal finance may
have a negative impact on the learning of economics and therefore a lower test grade.
The regression model we used is as follows:
Xi = β0 + β1 Di + β2 Hi + β3 EP Fi + β4 W !sei + β5 Ai + i

(1)

where X is the pretest score. D are control variables for relevant demographic characteristics like gender, race/ethnicity, and first-generation college status. H is the ability variable
represented by the SAT score. EP F is the dummy variable for taking an EPF course
with a full semester of economics, and W !se is the dummy for taking the personal finance
certification test. Both variables are reported by students in the survey. A represents additional controls, namely teacher’s training (names were cross-referenced to state database
on teacher professional development), course delivery method (online vs. in-person). We
used robust standard errors to correct for heteroskedasticity.
Furthermore, we investigated whether there is an interrelation between our main control variable – SAT score – and our main variable on student experience – W!se testing.
We therefore added an interaction term between W!se test and SAT. This is represented in
equation (2). We also looked into the interaction between SAT and taking a full semester
of economics but did not find a significant effect.
Xi = α0 + α1 Di + α2 Hi + α3 EP Fi + α4 W !sei + α5 Ai + α6 W !sei × Hi + ξi

11

(2)

We also looked into the impact of these variables on the final course grade, F , using
the same model (3), as well as the impact of the pretest score (4). Demographic variables
and SAT scores are expected to affect final course grade, and we wanted to know if the
EPF course and the personal finance certification test have any observable effect beyond
these. We also controlled for high school GPA, which can affect course grades, as well as
the students’ professor. Results can be found in the next section.

5

Fi = γ0 + γ1 Di + γ2 Hi + γ3 EP Fi + γ4 W !sei + γ5 Ai + γ6 GP A + ηi

(3)

Fi = δ0 + δ1 Di + δ2 Hi + δ3 Xi + ζi

(4)

Results

In this section, we present the results of the model specifications discussed above.
Table 6 shows the coefficients for the model described in equation (1) 4 . We controlled for
gender, race, first-generation college status, and SAT score. We found that taking an EPF
course with a full semester of economics, versus a focus on personal finance or no course,
significantly increases student’s pretest scores. These students scored 1 point higher out of
20 – 5 percentage points higher – in their tests. Taking the EPF course with a teacher who
was trained by VCEE did not impact the pretest result, nor did taking the course online –
a popular option, ash 38% took the EPF course online.5
Taking the W!se certification did not have a significant effect on the test scores, counter
to our hypothesis. However, as we can see in the third column of Table 6, students with
high SAT scores are negatively impacted by taking the certification, while students with
low SAT scores benefited from it. Those two forces cancel out, so we only find an effect
in the population once we include the interaction between W!se and SAT.
Figure 1 depicts the predictive margins of W!se for different SAT scores. For a student
with a quite low 850 SAT score, taking the W!se test would increase their pretest score
by about 3 points out of 20 (15 percentage points). For a student with a high SAT score
4
5

To see the coefficients of every variable refer to appendix ??.
This is all before the coronavirus pandemic.

12

Table 6: Regressions on pretest score (20 points)
Female
-0.933∗∗ -0.942∗∗ -0.923∗∗
(0.291)

(0.355)

(0.288)

White

1.022∗∗

1.167∗∗

0.953∗∗

(0.334)

(0.402)

(0.333)

Black

-0.382

-0.631

-0.373

(0.379)

(0.475)

(0.379)

0.264

0.517

0.265

(0.315)
∗∗∗

(0.381)
∗∗∗

(0.313)
∗∗∗

First-generation College
SAT

0.013

(0.001)
∗∗

EPF (semester of econ)

0.920

W!se

0.011

(0.001)
∗∗

0.991

(0.315)

(0.376)

0.431

0.276

(0.392)

(0.577)

Trained by VCEE

0.018

(0.002)

0.926∗∗
(0.313)
∗∗

8.647

(2.879)

-0.123
(0.361)

Online

-0.212
(0.496)

-0.007∗∗

W!se × SAT

(0.002)

Observations
R2
Standard errors in parentheses.

342
0.322
∗

217
0.318

342
0.334

p < 0.05, ∗∗ p < 0.01, ∗∗∗ p < 0.001

13

Figure 1: Predictive margins of wise with 95% CI

of 1450, taking the W!se reduces their pretest score by about 2 points (10 percentage
points).6 The average student in our sample had an SAT score of 1141, and would increase
their score about 5 percentage points by taking the W!se. A student with a SAT score
one standard deviation above the average would decrease their pretest score by about 5
percentage points by taking the W!se test, while a student with a SAT score one standard
deviation below the average would increase their pretest score by about 10 percentage
points by taking the test. For comparison, we found that taking the EPF course with a
full semester of economics instruction increased one’s pretest score by about 1 point, or
5 percentage points. These differing effects of the certification test are not trivial—they
have the largest effect size of any variable we studied besides SAT score itself.
The last part of our analysis examined the effects of these variables on students’ final
grades in their college economics course, following the model in equations (3) and (4). The
results can be found in Table 7. These results are subject to perhaps competing effects. On
6

The 850 and 1450 are close to minimum and maximum SAT scores in our sample, which are 820 and
1500, respectively.

14

one hand, entering the course with some knowledge of economics learned in high school
may allow students to learn more and perform better at their college course. On the other
hand, good college instructors can teach the same material and fill any gap in students’
knowledge from differences in their high school education.
Table 7: Regressions on final course grade (100 points)
Female
2.05
1.48
2.96
0.59
White
Black
First-generation College
SAT

(1.14)

(1.28)

(1.57)

(1.53)

-1.57

-2.20

-2.12

-1.92

(1.27)

(1.44)

(1.80)

(1.69)

-1.79

-2.02

-3.26

-3.53

(1.46)

(1.61)

(1.96)

(1.93)

1.68

2.48

2.20

1.86

(1.17)
∗∗∗

(1.32)
∗∗∗

(1.55)
∗∗∗

(1.50)
∗∗∗

0.04

(0.01)

EPF (semester of econ)

0.04

0.03

0.03

(0.01)

(0.01)

(0.01)

-0.42

1.16

0.30

(1.54)

(1.74)
∗

Trained by VCEE

3.70

(1.66)

W!se

(1.61)

2.48
(1.61)

-1.35
(2.72)

Online

1.65
(2.30)
∗∗∗

HS GPA

7.30

(1.92)

Observations
R2
Standard errors in parentheses.

388
0.147
∗

315
0.150

200
0.172

198
0.243

p < 0.05, ∗∗ p < 0.01, ∗∗∗ p < 0.001

We find that students’ final grades are determined mostly by SAT and high school GPA.
A 100-point increase in SAT score was associated with a 2.73 percentage point increase
in final grade. High school GPA had a significant effect, with a half-point increase in high
school GPA (e.g., from 3 to 3.5) being associated with an increase in final grade of 3.58.
Students whose teachers were trained by VCEE scored overall 3.7 percentage point higher
than their peers, which was significant with a p-value of 0.03 when not controlling for
high school GPA. However, when high school GPA was included in the model, the effect
of VCEE training was rendered no longer significant, with a p-value of 0.073. Unlike the
pretest analysis, students who spent at least half their high school EPF course studying
15

economics did not get higher grades, showing that the EPF effect did not persist after the
college experience.
A further analysis, developed in Table 8, shows the results of a logistic regression on
drop outs. In column (1), we can see that students with a higher pretest score are less likely
to drop-out from the course. However, this effect disappears once we control for SAT and
high school GPA.
Table 8: Logistic regression on non-drop outs
(1)
(2)
(3)
final
final
final
∗∗∗
pretest
1.20
1.06
1.06
(0.02)

SAT

(0.08)

(0.07)

1.00∗

1.00∗

(0.00)

(0.00)

4.42∗∗∗

HS GPA

(1.66)

N

629

422

422

Odds ratio; Standard errors in parentheses
∗
p < 0.05, ∗∗ p < 0.01, ∗∗∗ p < 0.001

Previous studies are similarly ambivalent about the persistence of high school economics study on college achievement. Lopus and Maxwell (1994) and Lopus (1997)
found that economics learning can persist, but only in regard to certain economics content. Brasfield et al. (1993) reported that results on this question are often ”inconclusive
and often contradictory,” though they did find positive results for high school learning,
while emphasizing that effects may vary depending on statistical methods and local context. As for whether or not students drop the course, it is not surprising that “students’
grades in their economics courses are a significant predictor of course persistence for both
men and women” (Ahlstrom and Asarta, 2019), and that test scores and high school grades
are associated with college performance.

16

6

Discussion

In this study, we measured economics achievement by a course pretest as well as final
grade in an introductory college economics course. Several aspects of a high school course
in economics and personal finance become apparent.
A large majority of students taking a mandated course in economics and personal finance in Virginia take a required personal finance standardized test. A full 70% of all the
students who took an EPF course reported that it was mostly about personal finance. This
is strikingly close to the 73% of students who reported taking the W!se test, and this is
further corroborated by the proportion of schools that W!se works with in Virginia: 400
out of 623, or 64%. (One expects that larger public schools are more likely to use the
test than private or smaller schools, meaning that the proportion of schools that use the
test should be somewhat lower than the proportion of students who take the test.) This
is strong evidence that personal finance instruction did crowd out economics instruction.
However, the personal finance test was not associated with lower economics test scores for
all students. Low SAT students actually performed better in our economics pretest if they
have taken the W!se test, while high SAT students performed worse.
There could be several explanations for this. One possible explanation is that economics and personal finance complement each other. For example, learning about interest
rates in personal finance would help also one prepare for the economics test. Evidence for
this explanation was found by Walstad et al. (2010) in a study of student learning gains
from a high school personal finance curriculum where students who were in economics
courses scored higher in personal finance than those who were not. In another study by
Grimes et al. (2010), a large nationwide telephone survey found that adults who reported
taking high school courses in economics were less likely to be unbanked, and people with
more knowledge of basic economic concepts were similarly unlikely to be unbanked. The
authors’ findings demonstrated that “an individual’s understanding of the economic system
was as important as formal coursework in explaining access to basic financial services.”
The need to substitute time learning personal finance in place of other courses (perhaps in some cases Advanced Placement economics) may explain the decrease in economics scores for high-SAT students. This supposed substitution effect is apparently
17

strong enough to overturn the complementary effect of economics and personal finance
in these students. Whatever the explanation, this finding should be particularly important
for policymakers, school district administrators, and classroom teachers. A good policy
should consider the composition of the classroom. More research is needed for us to have
a better understanding of the certification requirement outside the classroom.
The effect of being taught economics for a full semester in high school, while significant to the pretest, was not significant for final grades. This is not entirely surprising,
as previous studies have found that previous advantages in economics learning can fade
away as current students catch up (Myatt and Waddell, 1990). However, students who had
a high school teacher who did at least 40 hours of teacher professional development from
VCEE in economics education earned about 3.5% more on their final grades than their
peers. This is admittedly a model-dependent result that is much narrower than when the
students in the sample had no uniform economics experience. Earlier studies show that
teachers need between three and four economics classes before their learning translates
into student learning (Allgood and Walstad, 1999; Swinton et al., 2010), and that student
gains may be associated with learning certain economic concepts rather than others (i.e.,
micro rather than macro) Lopus (1997). In addition, it is encouraging to note that whatever disadvantages female students exhibited in the pretest were not present in their final
grades. Latino students fared especially well in their final grades.
This study has some limitations. The subjects were drawn from courses during three
semesters, at one state university, so it is possible that these data do not reflect the achievement or experience of the wider population. The lack of a true post-test (in contrast to
our analysis of final grades) does not allow us to track student growth over time - we have
to be content with these ”snapshots” of achievement. Much of the study relies on survey
responses to at least some degree. We sought to mitigate the problems associated with
incorrect survey responses or forgetfulness by asking very broad questions (e.g., Did you
take the financial literacy certification test?) and by asking several different questions to
try to parse out the relevant phenomena. The variable for teacher’s training was sparse
given that several students forgot the name of their teacher. Also, the last semester in our
data had a shift in instruction mode once all courses had to be online due to the coronavirus
pandemic, so final grades for that semester may be different than for a regular semester.
18

Our results provide valuable insight into the relationship between economics and personal finance subjects in high school, which are likely to be crammed together in one
course. If more states move toward mandates for EPF courses, they will want to be apprised of the tendency of personal finance content to dominate economics content. This
paper has demonstrated that this tendency does not necessarily negatively affect economics
scores—at least for some students—especially if economics is emphasized or at least given
parity in the classroom.

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A

Robustness Checks
Table 9: Summary Statistics by Survey Take-up: Mean

Survey
No
Yes
Total

Pretest
56.00
56.05
56.05

Final Grade
SAT
77.46 1113.50
78.47 1147.49
78.31 1141.04

HS GPA
3.44
3.54
3.52

female
0.54
0.57
0.57

white
0.34
0.42
0.41

firstgen
0.32
0.31
0.31

Table 10: Summary Statistics by Final Exam Attendance: Mean
Final Exam
No
Yes
Total

Pretest
SAT
58.20 1189.41
55.75 1136.80
56.05 1141.04

HS GPA
3.45
3.53
3.52

female
0.52
0.57
0.57

white
0.46
0.40
0.41

firstgen
0.31
0.31
0.31

Table 11: T-Test: Difference in pre-test score between groups
(1)
(2)
(3)
No Survey vs. No Final vs. Mostly PF vs.
Survey
Final
Mostly Econ
pretest
-0.01
0.49
-0.72∗
(0.971)
(0.235)
(0.022)
N
629
629
527
p-values in parentheses
∗
p < 0.05, ∗∗ p < 0.01, ∗∗∗ p < 0.001

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B

Survey: The Effect of High School Economics courses
in Virginia
Name
1. When did you last take an economics class (high school or college?)
(a) Never
(b) Last semester
(c) Last year
(d) Before last year
2. Have you taken a high school economics and/or personal finance (EPF) course?
(a) No.
(b) Yes. The course was mostly about personal finance
(c) Yes. I learned about economics for an entire semester
(d) Yes: another course (what was the course?)
3. What grade did you get in that EPF class?
(a) A
(b) B
(c) C
(d) D-F
(e) Not applicable
4. In which school division (county) did you take your class? [Private or charter
schools write “other”]

25

5. Did you take the W!SE personal finance certification test as part of your high school
EPF class?
(a) No or not applicable
(b) Yes
6. How was the EPF course delivered?
(a) With a classroom teacher
(b) Online, with lots of involvement from a classroom teacher
(c) Online, with little teacher involvement
(d) Not applicable
7. What was your most recent high school economics teacher’s name (full name)?

26