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Focusing on Numbers Ignores Sources of Gender Bias

September 10, 2010

In a new paper on testing and gender bias published in the FABBS journal, Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, author Joseph R. Cimpian quotes an elementary school teacher:

            “These are my students’ standardized test scores, and there are absolutely no gender differences. See, the girls can do just as well as the boys if they work hard enough.”

In “Why Focusing on Test Metrics May Impede Gender Equity: Policy Insights,” Cimpian describes gender bias as “one of the most consistent predictors of gaps in both math and reading.”

In results from one test, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Class, girls and boys are equally good at math before entering kindergarten.  By third grade, boys are scoring higher than girls. This discrepancy is true among all race groups, he said.

Another test, the National Assessment of Education Progress, shows boys ahead of girls in math by fourth grade, particularly among top achievers.  The gap persists but narrows around eighth grade and widens again by 12th grade. The national data also found socioeconomic differences, with the math gap favoring boys even more in affluent school districts.

The gap is less noticeable on state achievement tests, but Cimpian explains that these tests generally are less rigorous and that teachers prepare their students all year to take them.

Gender stereotypes contribute to the gap. Cimpian explains: “For a girl to be rated as mathematically capable as her fellow boy classmate, she not only needed to perform as well as him on all external tests but also be seen as working harder than him.”

As boys outperform girls, a confidence gap comes into play.  “When teachers…attribute girls’ successes to hard work and boys’ successes to innate ability,” Cimpian says, “they likely affect the confidence gap as well as the test gap.”

Families play a role in the gap, especially among those in higher socioeconomic brackets–more dance lessons for girls, more organized sports for boys, Cimpian says, as well as beliefs about the roles of women in the home and men in the workforce.

In reading, girls in grades 3 through 8 routinely out-perform boys on state tests—even before entering kindergarten.

Girls and boys seem equally confident in their abilities to read, but girls tend to be more motivated to read and place more value on reading.  But since girls also tend to try harder on standardized tests, “the true reading test gap may be smaller than the observed reading test gap.”

Cimpian advises teachers and society to avoid stereotyping reading as feminine and teachers to try to boost boys’ motivation and reading for enjoyment.  Schools, likewise, should implement professional development that confronts assumptions teachers make about innate abilities.

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