The Fast and the Studious: How Much does Observing Ramadan affect Student Exams?

By Olivier Marie, Kyra Hanemaaijer and Marco Musumeci

Ramadan observance, the obligation for Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset during the Islamic holy month, is especially challenging to those living in non-Muslim countries who must go to work or school as usual during this period. This became even more of an issue in recent years as Ramadan overlapped with high-staked exams taken at the end of high school in most of Europe. In the Netherlands, practicing Muslim students were fasting during the 2018 and 2019 exams. We exploit this (natural) experiment to investigate the question as to how much Ramadan observance affects academic performance.

'Having exams during Ramadan increased the existing graduation gap by 16.4%'

Fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is one of the five pillars of Islam. During this period, all healthy post-pubertal Muslims should abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise to sunset. In recent years, Ramadan has fallen in May and June, a critical period for students in the Western world, with secondary school graduation exams and university admission tests taking place. This has caused concerns about the potential impact of Ramadan observance on students' academic performance as Muslim students might struggle in balancing religious obligations with academic pursuits, especially in countries where no special accommodation is made to do so. Despite media attention on this challenge there is very limited empirical evidence on the impact of Ramadan observance on educational or other outcomes. This article presents an overview of our research which investigates the multiple factors that may impact Muslim students using data from the high school graduation exam in the Netherlands where Ramadan overlapped with these exams in 2018 and 2019.

Worse Results for Muslim Students

We exploit data from Statistics Netherlands on the 800,000 high school students who took the graduation exam from 2014 to 2019. To estimate the impact of Ramadan, we examine whether exam scores and pass probability of Muslim students worsened during the years when Ramadan overlapped with the final exams, using non-Muslim students as control group. Almost 8% of students who took these exams have at least one parent who came from Morocco or Turkey. We assume that they are not all as likely to strictly observe Ramadan. Indeed, large survey evidence reveals that, while almost all individuals from these communities self-identify as Muslim, those of Moroccan background are much more likely to state that they ‘fast every-day’ during Ramadan than those of Turkish background. We use this information, in a machine learning model, to assign a probability of fasting to each student and document a large negative impact of Ramadan observance on academic performance. Grades were on average 6.2% lower for those most likely to fast than what they would have been if Ramadan did not overlap with the graduation exams. As a result, these students were 8.3% more likely to fail their exams. Since those are students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are on average less likely to pass, having exams during Ramadan increased the existing graduation gap by 16.4%. Furthermore, we find that this effect is especially strong in schools with a large concentration of Muslim students. Lastly, we find evidence of peer effects in Ramadan observance as own exams are affected by the likelihood of others also fasting.   

Accommodating for Religious Obligations

The findings of this study show that an overlap between the Ramadan month and high stakes exams negatively impact the academic performance of Muslim students. These results highlight the importance of considering the obligations of religious minorities in education policies, and beyond, as not doing so can exacerbate existing inequalities. A solution would be to reschedule exams, but this may not be acceptable for the (non-religious) majority and, indeed, the Dutch government rejected this option when asked about the 2018-19 overlap of Ramadan with exams in parliament. In our study, we consider if timing of exams ‘within the day’ could help and find that Ramadan effects are minimized when there is only one exam scheduled in the afternoon and none the same morning. We postulate that this is because Muslim students can sleep on those days to mitigate tiredness and hunger felt during the Ramadan fast. Free morning on exam days is probably an acceptable solution for all to ensure that all students, regardless of religion, have an equal opportunity to succeed academically.

Erasmus School of Economics

Olivier Marie

Olivier Marie is Professor of Labour Economics at Erasmus School of Economics. He is interested in studying crime, education, and discrimination from an economic angle.

Erasmus School of Economics

Marco Musumeci

Marco Musumeci is a NWO funded PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Economics. His interest lies in the areas of education and health economics.

Erasmus School of Economics

Kyra Hanemaaijer

Kyra Hanemaaijer is a NWO funded PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Economics. She is interested in economics of crime, education, and gender. 

PhD student
PhD student
More information

This item is part of Backbone Magazine 2023. The magazine can be found in E-building or Theil-building for free. Additionally, a digital copy is available here. Backbone is the corporate magazine of Erasmus School of Economics. Since 2014, it is published once a year. The magazine highlights successful and interesting alumni, covers the latest economic trends and research, and reports on news, events, student and alumni accomplishments.

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