Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Are Boys and Girls' Math Scores Now the Same?

A slew of articles this past week, based on a recent study in Science, claim that boys and girls' math test scores are now the same. According to this article in the New York Times, the average math scores for boys and girls on the tests taken for No Child Left Behind are identical. This article from the LA Times notes that boys and girls score in the top 5% at just about the same rates. Many of these articles gleefully note that former Harvard President Larry Summers was wrong about his statements a few years ago that women are underrepresented among math and science faculty because they are underrepresented in the top levels of abstract reasoning ability. Many articles also mention the stupid talking Barbie who, many years ago now, said "Math class is tough." Girls are just as tough as boys! the articles say. The idea that girls aren't good at math "doesn't add up."

But as Heather MacDonald points out on the City Journal website, this isn't exactly what the Science study said. Average student scores for boys and girls were the same, and top 5% scores were similar, but among the top 1% (and the very bottom), there was a lot of variability. For white 11th graders, for instance, boys outnumbered girls 2-1 at the 99th percentile. What does one make of this? It should be noted that these are also No Child Left Behind tests -- scoring at the 99th percentile on one of them isn't exactly tough for a highly gifted kid. And it's highly gifted kids who grow up to be the mathematicians of the future. Perhaps a truly tough test (for instance, the math SAT given to 7th graders) would show a different spread.

MacDonald brings up some good points, but what I find most fascinating is one that she just touches on -- among Asian students scoring in the top 1%, if I'm reading her correctly, there are slightly more girls than boys. So while she claims that the skew toward boys scoring better among white students shows that Summers was not wrong (boys are more likely to be extremely gifted or extremely mentally disabled), the Asian scores may show something else. But what exactly?

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between the "there are no differences, just cultural bias" camp and the "boys occupy both extremes" camp. One hesitates to stereotype, but my observational experience of gifted Asian children is that families value science and math achievement in girls and boys equally. There may be later assumptions about occupations and childcare and the like, but these don't show up among 11th graders. And hence they don't really show up among 11th grade scores. That may be a more complicated point than can come across in these articles, but if it's true, it's one worth looking at.


Kevin said...

No comments on the main point, but I disagree that the SAT math exam is a "truly tough test" even for 7th graders. The AMC 8 or AMC 10 tests, aimed at 8th grade and 10th grade respectively are probably tougher tests, because they are not intended to rank average kids (the way the SAT is), but to separate out the very capable

Anittah Patrick said...

I took the SAT in 7th grade and I didn't fare nearly as well as I did on it in 9th grade (which is after I had a bit more geometry).

I will say, as a former math nerd, that my desire to court the male gaze as an undergrad shifted my attentions away from my math studies. Whereas I had been tracked early as gifted in math, I fell off the track as soon as I started to blossom socially. (Good thing I was a late bloomer.) This was in part because n-dimensional math seemed to lack relevance, a condition exacerbated by the paucity of female math or econ profs at Yale. (And by dearth I mean empty set.)

[Fast forward to my thirties, and now I'm finally back taking math classes again.]

That said, the points you bring up are good ones. And while I'm happy if it's true that on average boys and girls are doing equally okay in math, but I'd be happiest if in ten to fifteen years all those boys and girls can correctly fill out a mortgage application and understand deal terms for financial instruments so that public funds (= my tax dollars) don't have to get involved in a bailout.