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Friday, July 25, 2008

Girls = Boys at Math

Yup, that's what the latest study says, published in Science. My colleague David Malakoff writes about it here on our ScienceNOW news service. The link is free for four weeks from publication, but Balter's Blog is forever, so please click on the link so my editors won't mind my giving you the text:

Girls = Boys at Math

By David Malakoff
ScienceNOW Daily News
24 July 2008

Zip. Zilch. Nada. There's no real difference between the scores of U.S. boys and girls on common math tests, according to a massive new study. Educators hope the finding will finally dispel lingering perceptions that girls don't measure up to boys when it comes to crunching numbers.

"This shows there's no issue of intellectual ability--and that's a message we still need to get out to some of our parents and teachers," says Henry "Hank" Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, Virginia.

It won't be a new message. Nearly 20 years ago, a large-scale study led by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found a "trivial" gap in math test scores between boys and girls in elementary and middle school. But it did suggest that boys were better at solving more complex problems by the time they got to high school.

Now, even that small gap has disappeared, Hyde reports in tomorrow's issue of Science. Her team sifted through scores from standardized tests taken in 2005, 2006, and 2007 by nearly 7 million students in 10 states. Overall, the researchers found "no gender difference" in scores among children in grades two through 11. Among students with the highest test scores, the team did find that white boys outnumbered white girls by about two to one. Among Asians, however, that result was nearly reversed. Hyde says that suggests that cultural and social factors, not gender alone, influence how well students perform on tests.

Another portion of the study did confirm that boys still tend to outscore girls on the mathematics section of the SAT test taken by 1.5 million students interested in attending college. In 2007, for instance, boys' scores were about 7% higher on average than girls'. But Hyde's team argues that the gap is a statistical illusion, created by the fact that more girls take the test. "You're dipping farther down into the distribution of female talent, which brings down the score," Hyde says. It's not clear that statisticians at the College Board, which produces the SAT, will agree with that explanation. But Hyde says it's good news, because it means the test isn't biased against girls.

The study's most disturbing finding, the authors say, is that neither boys nor girls get many tough math questions on state tests now required to measure a school district's progress under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. Using a four-level rating scale, with level one being easiest, the authors said that they found no challenging level-three or -four questions on most state tests. The authors worry that means that teachers may start dropping harder math from their curriculums, because "more teachers are gearing their instruction to the test."

The results "essentially confirm" earlier studies--and they should finally put to rest the idea that girls aren't going into technical fields because they can't do the math, says Ann Gallagher, a psychologist who studies testing at the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pennsylvania. But she still thinks there may be cultural or psychological reasons for why girls still tend to lag behind boys on high-stakes tests such as the SAT. Among students she's observed, she says "the boys tend to be a little more idiosyncratic in solving problems, the girls more conservative in following what they've been taught."

Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

News update: The Washington Post reports today that U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan are getting around to launching an investigation into the spate of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes against supposed terrorists and Taliban. I earlier blogged about the failure of the American mainstream media to follow up on this story; I guess they were just waiting to see what officialdom would do, if anything. One can imagine guys (and maybe gals) sitting at computers fielding hot tips about insurgent movements and their superiors ordering airstrikes at pretty much anything that moves. I hope I am imagining it wrongly, and I hope that this investigation will end up saving some lives. I also hope that Americans, and that includes Barack Obama, will wake up to the looming disaster in Afghanistan--or have no lessons been learned from the Russians or even the war in Iraq?

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