Education Opinion

Boys, Girls, and Behavior

By Sara Mead — February 04, 2013 5 min read
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This recent Journal of Human Resources article on gender gaps in elementary school students test score performance and teacher-assigned grades contains a lot of fascinating stuff, so it’s unfortunate that the media coverage it inevitably attracts has been reduced to “elementary school-aged boys are actually smarter than girls, but teachers screw them over by giving them lower grades based on their behavior.” (Give Christina Hoff Sommers credit for not jumping on that stupid bandwagon in this NYT article over the weekend--although her piece is also much more about ideas she already had than what this study found.)

Here’s what you should know about this study: A group of economists analyzed data on thousands of children who participated in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a federally-funded, long-term research project that began collecting data on over 17,000 students who entered kindergarten in 1998, and followed this cohort (with some attrition) through 5th grade. The economists found several things:

  1. There are large gender gaps in children’s standardized test scores in reading that favor girls. These gaps occur across all major ethnic/racial gaps, emerge in kindergarten, and persist through elementary school.
  2. There are also gender gaps favoring boys in children’s standardized test performance in math and science, but these gaps tend to be smaller and are greater for white than for black and Hispanic students.
  3. There are also gender gaps in children’s teacher-assigned grades. These gaps tend to favor girls in reading, and the gaps are even larger than children’s standardized test score performance would predict (note that these tests were part of the ECLS-K study, not teacher created or assigned tests). In math and science, white boys score better than girls on standardized tests, but receive lower teacher-assigned grades in kindergarten (and first grade for science), and then grades roughly on par with girls in subsequent grades. For black and Hispanic students, there is less gap between boys’ and girls’ standardized test scores, but black and Hispanic students tend to receive lower teacher-assigned grades than their female peers. In other words, boys of all races are receiving lower teacher-assigned grades, relative to girls, than their standardized test scores would predict.

Significant enough, right? But then the economists did something else. They added an indicator to their analysis that reflected how teachers assessed students on a measure of their “non-cognitive skills,"--specifically, an component of ECLS-K called the Approaches to Learning subscale. This data reflected teachers response to a question about how often (from “never” to “very often”) children do the following: 1) keep belongings organized, 2) show eagerness to learn new things, 3) work independently, 4) adapt to changes in routine, 5) persist in completing tasks, and 6) pay attention well. In grades 3-5 teachers were also asked about how often children follow classroom rules. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that girls, on average, scored better than boys on the Approaches to Learning subscale.

When researchers included the Approaches to Learning subscale data in their analysis, along with test scores and other indicators, they found no statistically significant evidence of a gender gap in grading favoring girls. In other words, including the non-cognitive skills indicator largely seems to account for the difference boys’ and girls’ relative grades and what their relative test score performance would predict. In fact, white boys who had similar Approaches to Learning and test scores relative to their female peers seemed to earn a sort of grade premium.

Now, let’s note what this doesn’t say: This does not mean that teachers give boys lower grades than they “deserved” because they were poorly behaved. In fact, researchers explicitly sought to account for this potential bias by using “lagged” approaches to learning data (ie, the approaches to learning score assigned by a subsequent teacher than the one who assigned the grades).

Rather, its more likely that differences in noncognitive skills mediated boys’ ability to demonstrate performance in the classroom. We tend to have this idea that test scores reflect the magical truth about how well children “really” perform. But the reality is that there’s no magical ideal of “true” performance. There’s plenty of evidence that how you score on tests has significant predictive power in life. But how children execute and demonstrate skills in classroom and real-life tasks matters, too. Teacher-assigned grades reflect students’ demonstrated performance in the classroom (on both regular class and homework assignments and teacher-created tests). And it’s likely that boys’ weaker non-cognitive skills resulted in submitted work that demonstrated lower quality of performance than the girls did. After all, if you’re not good at being organized, persisting in completing tasks, or paying attention, you’re probably not going to do as well in school as someone who is good at those things.

The really interesting question, then, is what you do with that result. Some people have responded to this study by saying that it’s evidence that school practices systematically discriminate against boys. And it’s true that there are elementary school teachers who base significant portions of children’s grades on how organized their binders are or how well they color in the lines--which is neither particularly useful in promoting academic rigor nor particularly fair to little boys (and some girls, including my 6-year-old self) who struggle with organization or fine motor skills. At the same time, skills like persisting in tasks, paying attention, being organized, and adapting to changes in routine have real value in the world. Indeed, a growing body of research shows that noncognitive skills are incredibly important to how people fare in life. So if little boys are lagging in these skills, the answer can’t just be to adapt schools to place less emphasis on them. We also have to help little boys--and young men--develop these skills so that they can be successful in school and life. That’s the real point people should be taking away from this study. And it’s one thing Hoff Sommers and I can agree on.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.