Survey, ‘Political Dynamite’ Thwart Girls’ Schools’ Study of Math, Science

November 25, 1992 8 min read

What members of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools set out to research last year was which private school environments--be they single-sex or coeducational--worked best to foster high school girls’ interest and success in mathematics and science.

What they have learned instead from an as-yet-unfinished analysis of the data was that their detailed questionnaire was a time-intensive nightmare for schools to complete and that a poorly worded query about course credits in high school mathematics apparently led to substantial underreporting of that statistic.

But beyond that, says the questionnaire’s analyst, Ann S. Pollina, they have learned from a dismal participation rate that asking coeducational institutions to put themselves up for comparison to single-sex schools on how well they teach girls was apparently “political dynamite’’ that has undermined the goals of the survey.

Instead of the hoped-for completion of 150 questionnaires from a mix of all-girls’, coed, and even boys’ schools--the last for background--the researchers received only 31 usable sets of data--27 from all-girls’ schools and just four from coed schools.

“I’m not sure [coed schools are] not convinced this is just a ploy ... to prove that we’re better,’' says Ms. Pollina, who is the dean of faculty and the head of the math department at all-girls’ Westover School in Middlebury, Conn.

It was not the coalition’s intent to use the survey to congratulate itself, members say.

“We had the suspicion’’ that students at all-girls’ schools were taking math and science courses and pursuing them to higher levels in greater numbers than other girls, says Whitney Ransome, the co-executive director of the N.C.G.S. “We wanted to document our suspicion.’'

Some of the strategies all-girls’ schools use to teach math and science have developed because of the “luxury of having only girls in front of us,’' Ms. Pollina says, and those tips can be useful to other educators.

“Of course, it may look as if that [the survey] must be a pat on the back’’ for girls’ schools, Ms. Ransome says. But she adds that it is also a way to make certain “we practice what we preach.’'
The research project got under way in June 1991, when Ms. Pollina and others brought a sample questionnaire to a coalition-sponsored symposium on math and science for girls held at Wellesley College.

In its final form, the questionnaire asks for the math and science course-taking histories of every student in three recent graduating classes, as well as their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Achievement Tests, and Advanced Placement examinations.

“The whole point of the survey was to be able to focus on a group of schools where the numbers are way up’’ for girls, Ms. Pollina says.

And if the survey could discover which schools worked best for girls, she says, educators could “go to those schools, visit, and try to distill those elements in the school culture ... that worked well for girls’'--whether they be teaching strategies or something more subtle.

‘Ticklish Political Situation’

The idea is not to imply that every girl should go to an all-girls’ school, Ms. Ransome says, but, instead, “what is it that we can offer to the reform of the disciplines.’'

But with such a meager sample of coed schools, Ms. Pollina says, “I’m not certain we can still use the questionnaire for its original purpose.’'

Coed schools do care about educating their female students well, but Ms. Pollina says, “I do think we are in a ticklish political situation where it becomes difficult, in a way, to set yourself up to be examined in such a way when there’s so much publication being done right now about girls’ differential learning styles, et cetera.’'

To be fair, Ms. Pollina says, she has no way of knowing how hard each of the girls’ schools tried to get a coed school to agree to participate in the survey.

The 65 girls’ schools who are coalition members were each given a questionnaire and asked to find a partner school--either coeducational or an all-boys’ school--that would also complete the survey.

‘A Bear To Fill Out’

But Ms. Pollina acknowledges that the girls’ schools were better able than the other schools to participate in the project. In addition to being more interested in the study, she notes, girls’ schools also tend to be smaller.

By contrast, she notes, at some of the larger coeducational private schools, completion of the survey could amount to pulling data on hundreds of students.

“We have to be fair,’' says Louise Gould, the dean of the faculty and the head of the math department at the Ethel Walker School, an all-girls’ school in Simsbury, Conn. “The questionnaire is a bear to fill out.’'

With just a $1,500 budget for copying, mailing, and data entry, the coalition had no funds for sending workers out to collect the data instead of relying on school staff members to take time to do it.

Ms. Gould’s school was among those that filled out the questionnaire and asked a larger coeducational school to do the same.

Officials at the coed school--which she declined to name--were “interested at the outset and enthusiastic about doing it,’' Ms. Gould says, but, in the end, they were concerned “about the time they felt they could put into it.’'

She quickly adds, however, that “we certainly had schools much larger who did’’ participate.

Data Pegged to Ability

Despite the meager participation rate, the study’s directors say it will, nonetheless, produce useful data.

Even the final 31-school sample is still exciting, Ms. Pollina says, because it includes schools from all over the country and offers data on about 3,200 girls.

The study also provides for the first time information on the math and science achievement of girls across a range of abilities, not just those whose S.A.T. scores were in the top 10 percent of the nation.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the data that’s generated out there in terms of performance by girls is not broken down into ability [groups],’' Ms. Pollina says.

So it is an unusual element of the survey, she says, that they are able to peg the results--which girls are taking more math and science--by the students’ performance on the math portion of the S.A.T.

“If I say to you that 45 percent of the students at my school take the Advanced Placement exam in calculus, and their average score is 3.8, that’s wonderful,’' Ms. Pollina says. “Except, if you’re looking at that [data] at another school, the question that you would naturally ask is, ‘What students do you have at that school? How can I compare myself to you?’ ''

The link to S.A.T.'s helps fill that gap, Ms. Pollina says.

More Girls Taking Physics

If a key goal of the survey for girls’ schools was to reveal whether they are successful in teaching math and science for girls, the preliminary results indicate that “we’re being quite effective,’' Ms. Gould of the Ethel Walker School says.

But, rather than compare their performance with that of coeducational institutions, the initial analysis is comparing survey data on the number of math and science courses girls at all-girls’ schools take with the persistence in those same courses by college-bound girls nationally.

The most significant finding so far, Ms. Pollina says, is the strong persistence of girls from single-sex schools in physical science, especially in physics.

Nationally, among all girls, 15 percent take physics, according to Ms. Pollina. Among the college-bound girls taking College Board exams, about one-third, or 34 percent, report they take physics, she says.

The coalition survey, by contrast, has revealed that 46 percent of the students at all-girls’ schools take physics.

“The exciting thing about that is that ... girls at all ability levels are taking physics at all-girls’ schools,’' Ms. Pollina says.

For those girls who scored around 500 out of a possible 800 on the math portion of the S.A.T., 35 percent are taking physics. Even among those girls who score below 300 on that same test, 8 percent or 9 percent are enrolled in physics at an all-girls’ school, the survey shows.

“So, even students who probably haven’t identified themselves as strong math students are doing a fair amount of physical science,’' Ms. Pollina says.

“It may just be a question of confidence,’' she says, but adds: “I don’t know what it is that’s causing this.’'

Asked if students in the all-girls’ schools may be taking more science or math simply because the school requires more credits in those subjects for graduation, Ms. Gould says she does not know the answer.

But, she says, “I don’t have any problem with the fact we may be requiring more, and that may be a successful strategy.’'

A.P. Results Disappointing

One disheartening piece of data turned up by the survey is that the girls’ performance on the science A.P. exams “is not all we hope it might be,’' Ms. Gould says.

She declined to be more specific, saying the survey analysis was still too preliminary. She notes, however, that such a finding is consistent with other national data on college-bound girls.

“It suggests a continuing lack of experience’’ with scientific methods and equipment, Ms. Gould says. “It probably calls for remediation at many different levels’’ of the education system.

Ms. Pollina hopes to make more complete results of the survey public early next month and again early next year at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools.

While even the truncated results of the survey may be helpful to girls’ schools, internal use is much different from the original goal of “talking to the whole education community in powerful way’’ about what works best in math and science for girls, Ms. Pollina says.

But Ms. Gould has no apologies about a flawed first effort meeting with mixed success.

“We needed a start,’' she says.

“Any good survey,’' Ms. Ransome of the coalition says, “raises more questions than it answers.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Survey, ‘Political Dynamite’ Thwart Girls’ Schools’ Study of Math, Science