Gender Gap in Graduation

By Sterling C. Lloyd — July 06, 2007 6 min read
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“Do Mars and Venus ride the school bus?” That question was posed in a September 2005 Newsweek magazine story about the gender gap in academic outcomes and how to address them. Some researchers contend that males and females are fundamentally different and require separate educational strategies such as single-sex schooling. Others, however, argue that the question is not about whether Mars and Venus ride the school bus—or whether males and females are inherently different—but about the quality of education they receive once they arrive at school. Citing lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates for males than for females, the Newsweek story highlights growing concern over the educational status of males in America.

Role of Middle School Test Scores

Educational attainment levels, in particular high school graduation rates, are a key part of the gender gap debate. In fact, according to the EPE Research Center’s nationwide analysis of graduation rates for the 2003-04 school year, 66 percent of all male students earned a standard high school diploma that year compared to almost 74 percent of female students. This disparity in graduation rates exists across all racial/ethnic groups, with the largest gender gap seen among black students. Forty-six percent of black male students earned a standard diploma compared to nearly 60 percent of black females.

Gender Gap in Diplomas Practically Universal

Male students are consistently less likely to graduate from high school with a diploma. Nationally, the gender gap in graduation stands at nearly 8 percentage points. Females also earn diplomas at higher rates within every racial and ethnic group examined, with the largest disparity (more than 13 percentage points) found among black students.


Source: EPE Research Center, 2007

Some researchers, such as Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters of Johns Hopkins University, suggest that middle school achievement is an important factor in whether students graduate from high school, with less prepared students having greater difficulty making the transition from 8th grade to 9th grade . Research from Diplomas Count 2007 shows that nationally, more than one-third of the students lost from the high school pipeline fail to make the transition from 9th grade to 10th grade.

To further explore the issue of high school graduation rates for males, this Stat of the Week examines the relationship between states’ 8th grade NAEP mathematics scores for males in 2000 and the high school graduation rates of their male students in 2003-04. Thirty-five states were found to have the requisite data for the analysis.

Using 2003-04 graduation rates for male students calculated by the EPE Research Center, we rank-ordered states and divided them into quintiles. The seven states with the highest male graduation rates comprised the top quintile (High Grad Rate), with the bottom seven states occupying the lowest quintile (Low Grad Rate). Average 8th grade math scores were then tabulated for each quintile using results for male 8th graders from the 2000 NAEP assessment. The analysis showed that states with lower 2003-04 graduation rates for male students had lower NAEP math scores for male 8th graders in 2000. In fact, we found that average male NAEP scores steadily increased as graduation rates increased, quintile by quintile.


These descriptive findings are intriguing. However, gaining a more complete understanding of the relationship between states’ graduation rates for male students and their average NAEP math scores would require a more exhaustive analysis. For example, poverty rates might affect both a state’s high school graduation rate and its math achievement scores. Still, the findings raise an interesting set of questions about whether state efforts to improve academic achievement in middle school would also increase high school graduation rates.

Many researchers believe that improvements in education for all students are the key to increasing graduation rates for males. Along with more general academic improvement efforts, some researchers and advocacy groups have called for specific strategies intended to improve educational outcomes for males. Not surprisingly, the potential solutions raised by commentators tend to be related to their varying diagnoses of the root causes of lower male educational attainment. In the June 2006 report “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” Sara Mead of Education Sector includes a thorough summary of the different points of view. She notes that some observers find classrooms too rigid for males who tend to have more trouble sitting still than their female counterparts. Others say reading material and class assignments are not geared to the interests of males. Another group of commentators gives particular weight to theories about biological differences in male and female brains. The impact of peers and pop culture images of males are also discussed as important factors, especially for high school students.

Potential solutions, offered by the increasing number of voices opining on this topic, range from tailoring reading assignments to the interests of males to encouraging teachers to be more open to movement and competition in the classroom. One reform that has provoked considerable controversy is the idea of single-sex classes or schools. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education promulgated new regulations allowing public schools to group students by gender provided that both gender groups receive an education that is “substantially equal.” (“New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling,” Nov. 1, 2006.) The particular difficulties faced by black male students have increased the profile of the single-sex school issue for educators seeking to improve educational attainment and academic performance for that group of students. (“Black Boys’ Educational Plight Spurs Single-Gender Schools,” June 20, 2007.)

Gender Gap Spawns Debate

While some authors have lamented the educational decline of young males, other researchers find much of the concern to be overblown. For example, while noting that certain groups of males, such as minority males, face dire educational concerns, Mead contends that there is “hysteria about boys” and writes that “the current boy crisis hype and the debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than evidence.” Analyzing a number of education indicators, she finds that achievement for males overall, especially younger males, is actually higher now than in the past.

Clear lines of debate have been drawn over many aspects of the gender gap issue, particularly when it comes to the academic achievement of younger students. There appears to be much more agreement, however, that older males are faring less well than in the past and less well than their female peers on some critical indicators of educational achievement and attainment. Between 1992 and 2004, reading scores for 17-year-old males on the long-term NAEP assessment declined by six points and the gender gap widened. Mead notes that male high school students’ NAEP scores have dipped in some areas, although she points out that scores for females of the same age are also cause for concern. The answer for stagnant high school achievement, she suggests, is high school reform that will improve outcomes for all students.

Many researchers believe that more research and data are needed on education issues related to gender. The relationship between the academic performance and lower graduation rates of male students, explored briefly in this Stat of the Week, is one area for further research.

The graduation rates used in this analysis were calculated using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI). More information on graduation rates can be found in Education Week‘s Diplomas Count 2007.

The NAEP scores used in this analysis were taken from the NAEP Data Explorer.


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