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Boys, Girls, and NAEP Writing

By Sara Mead — September 18, 2012 2 min read

A bunch of people on twitter have been asking how I can stand by this report debunking the idea of a “boy crisis” when new NAEP writing scores find twice as many girls as boys are proficient in writing.*

A couple of thoughts here: First of all, the NAEP Writing assessment is only one measure, one that is administered fairly infrequently and has historically shown some of the largest gender gaps of any academic achievement measure we have--and has for some time. The 2011 NAEP Writing assessment results can’t be compared with prior years’ results (due to the use of a new writing framework and computer-based format in 2011). But it’s worth recognizing that each of the three previous administrations of the NAEP Writing Assessment (in 1998, 2002, and 2007) found that 8th and 12th grade girls were about twice as likely to be proficient as boys. That fits into a broader historical trend of data showing female advantages on measures of verbal, literacy, and writing skills going back well before anyone dreamed there was a boy crisis. So the information released last week isn’t new--it just confirms something we already knew.

Second, achievement gaps on NAEP writing between racial/ethnic groups are much larger than those by gender. 35 percent of white 12th graders were at least proficient in writing, compared to only 9 percent of black and 11 percent of Hispanic 12th graders. That’s downright frightening.

Finally, and most importantly--the point of questioning the “boy crisis” storyline was never to deny the existence of gender gaps in reading and writing. It was to challenge a narrative that suggested that boys were suddenly in trouble, that they were doing worse than in the past, and that this was somehow caused by some combination of girls’ empowerment, feminism, and/or a feminized culture in schools. The reality is that on the majority of educational and risk-behavior indicators we can track over time, boys are actually doing better than in the past (the picture is different for young male economic indicators, but that’s a factor of broader economic problems). Gender gaps in achievement are troubling, as is the emergence of a growing subculture of young men disconnected from an unprepared to participate in the mainstream economy and family life. But the key to addressing these problems effectively is to first get right what’s going on here.

*This is true in 8th grade but not 12th, where 33 percent of girls scored proficient and 21 percent of boys--still a very large gap, but if you think it’s double you need to work on your math proficiency.

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