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Girls graduate high school with more math than boys, but still like it less. Why?


A new statistical brief   released this morning  by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences, finds boys still like math and science more than girls -- even at a time when higher percentages of female high school graduates took algebra II, precalculus, advanced biology, chemistry, and health science/technology courses.

A new study offers one possible reason: Teachers assume boys are not only more interested in math, but are better at it and thus are more likely to encourage boys to pursue math.

Researchers followed students in Israel from sixth grade through high school and found teacher assumptions about boys and math influence grading.

 The New York Times reported on an interesting experiment within the study in which students took two exams, one graded by people who did not know their names or gender and another by teachers who did.

The Times said:  “In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects. For example, when the same students reached junior high and high school, the economists analyzed their performance on national exams. The boys who had been encouraged when they were younger performed significantly better.”

“Gender Differences in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Interest, Credits Earned, and NAEP Performance in the 12th Grade,” describes high school graduates’ attitudes toward STEM courses (specifically, mathematics and science), credits earned in STEM fields, and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics and science assessments in 2009.

Key findings include:

  • In general, a higher percentage of male than female high school graduates expressed interest in mathematics, and the same was true for interest in science.
  • 50 percent of male high school graduates said that mathematics was one of their favorite subjects, compared to 43 percent of female high school graduates. Similarly, in 2009, higher percentages of males reported that they liked science or that science was a favorite subject.

    •Compared to males, higher percentages of female high school graduates took algebra II, precalculus, advanced biology, chemistry, and health science/technology courses. However, higher percentages of males earned credits in physics, engineering, engineering/ science technologies, and computer/ information science.

  • Compared to white female graduates, a higher percentage of white male graduates in 2009 reported that they liked mathematics or science by 4 and 10 percentage points, respectively, and a higher percentage of White males reported that mathematics or science was a favorite subject by 6 and 14 percentage points, respectively.
  • Higher percentages of black male graduates in 2009 reported that they liked mathematics or science (by 9 and 13 percentage points, respectively) and having mathematics or science as a favorite subject (by 11 and 12 percentage points, respectively) than their female counterparts.
  • Compared to female Asian American/Pacific Islander graduates in 2009, a higher percentage of male Asian American/Pacific Islander graduates reported that they liked mathematics (by 7 percentage points), that mathematics was a favorite subject (by 10 percentage points), and that science was as favorite subject (by 10 percentage points).
  • Among Hispanic graduates in 2009, the same pattern emerged: the percentages of male graduates who reported that they liked mathematics or science were higher than the corresponding percentages of female graduates by 8 and 16 percentage points, respectively, and the percentages of male graduates who reported that mathematics or science was a favorite subject were higher by 12 and 15 percentage points, respectively.

    • Generally, among high school graduates who had earned credits in specific mathematics and science courses, males had higher average NAEP mathematics and NAEP science scale scores than females.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.