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Science: High School Test Scores Show No Gender Differences in Math
By analyzing academic data from 10 states, representing the testing of 7,208,843 youths, Janet Hyde from the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin and colleagues found that gender differences in math scores were extremely small among all ethnic groups in grades 2-11. These findings are in contrast to earlier results from 1990 that indicate measurable differences favoring males in complex problem-solving, beginning in the high school years.
Currently, women are largely absent from the highest levels of careers in mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering. In the United States, Ph.D. programs in engineering currently average only about 15% women, and similar statistics have led to stereotypes about girls and women lacking in mathematical ability.
With the introduction of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, all 50 states are now required to conduct annual assessments of students' cognitive performance, so Hyde and her team set out to investigate the causes for the shortage of women in science and mathematics careers. Their goal was to explore the myths about gender differences in academic performance, and their findings can be found in the 25 July issue of the journal Science.
The researchers contacted the state departments of education in all 50 states to request detailed statistical information on gender differences by grade level and ethnicity. Responses from 10 states contained an adequate amount of statistical information, and the data appeared to be representative of all 50 states in that their standardized test scores were on par with national results. The 10 states in this study were also geographically diverse.
Hyde and her colleagues say that the current gender differences observed are much too small to account for the well-documented shortage of females in careers that depend heavily on mathematics. Their findings imply that a reason separate from academic success is responsible for this anomaly.
These results do show that males tend to have a greater variability in mathematics performance overall, but causes for this remain unexplained.
It is clear now that the general population no longer shows a gender difference in mathematical skills, according to this latest report. However, Hyde and her colleagues did encounter one unexpected finding. The researchers report that the state assessments designed specifically to meet "No Child Left Behind" requirements actually fail to test for skills vital to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
This new data on academic performance in the United States shows that students are tested frequently on "recall" and "skill/concept" items, but rarely on "strategic thinking" or "extended thinking" concepts. If standardized tests do not assess the sorts of reasoning that are crucial to careers in science and math, then the skills may not be taught, putting American students at a disadvantage to students in other countries where testing and instruction focuses on more challenging content. This is a gap that should be fixed, Hyde said.
24 July 2008