Math 'Gender Gap' May Be Narrowing, Researchers Report

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Chicago--As late as the 10th grade, girls and boys score equally well on basic tests of mathematics, preliminary findings from a national longitudinal study of high-school students suggest.

The study's findings contrast with those from previous studies that have documented a so-called "gender gap" between boys'and girls' achievement levels in math that appears around the 10th grade.

Researchers said last week that the new data are significant because they suggest that the gap may be disappearing--a phenomenon they attribute in part to the fact that girls are taking more advanced math courses than they have in the past.

"It looks like the differences between boys and girls in high school are approaching zero," said Jon D. Miller, director of the study and of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University. "What we're coming to is a point in time when boys and girls are taking the same amount of math in high school and achieving at about the same level."

The new findings were discussed--but not formally presented--at the April 3-7 meeting of the American Educational Research Association here. They were derived from the National Longitudinal Study on American Youth, which has been tracking a national sample of 3,000 7th graders and 3,000 10th graders since the fall of 1987.

Crossing Over

For several decades, studies have shown that, in elementary school, girls perform slightly better than boys in mathematics. Typically, however, Mr. Miller said, the previously established pattern suggests that young girls lose that edge in high school and that boys gain a significant advantage in mathematics over girls.

A 1974 national longitudinal study by Thomas Hilton and Gosta W. Berglund indicated that the "crossover" point occurred at the 10th grade.

Through the 12th grade, some studies have indicated, the gap continued to widen. In the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, the average proficiency of 12th-grade boys in mathematics was five points higher than it was for girls.

Some newer studies, however, are beginning to hint that the gap is narrowing--if not disappearing.

The five-point gap in the 1988 NAEP study, for example, was two points smaller than it was in 1978--an amount that may not be statistically significant but could signal a pattern over time, researchers said last week.

"All we're doing is documenting what the literature is showing," said Robert Sucher, associate director of testing and measurement for the National Longitudinal Study on American Youth.

Both researchers attribute the changes in achievement levels to the fact that girls are taking more advanced math courses.

"The more math you take," Mr. Miller said, "the better you do."

Data from the same study show that, through the 11th grade, boys and girls take almost the same levels of mathematics courses--staying together through algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and pre-calculus.

According to the study, 28 per cent of high-school girls and 25 per cent of high-school boys take a pre-calculus course. A slightly higher proportion of girls than boys take algebra II.

"What we're seeing is girls have become as likely to take algebra and geometry and pre-calculus courses as boys have been," Mr. Sucher said, "and they're taking them just as early and doing just as well."

"Personally," he added, "I think there is simply a greater recognition that math is just as important for girls to learn as for boys, and that has got to be tied to a greater recognition that girls are competing for the same kinds of jobs."

Moreover, Mr. Miller noted, his study shows that girls are more likely than boys to indicate that they intend to go to college. Most postsecondary institutions require prospective students to take more advanced mathematics courses.

Math Anxiety Seen

By the 12th grade, however, fewer of the young women are going on to take calculus. Of the 322 students in the survey who took that subject in the 11th grade, only 55 percent continued in calculus. The majority-- 63 percent--were male.

The researchers said the drop in the number of girls persisting in mathematics at that level would not affect their overall achievement scores in math that year because so few of the questions on the test dealt with calculus and because relatively few students of either sex took that course.

Mr. Miller speculated that girls' decisions not to take calculus may be linked to their career choices.

In the engineering field, for example, men still outnumber women three to one, he noted. And women interested in the humanities have a much greater range of career choices available to them now than they once had.

They may not see calculus as a useful thing to them," Mr. Miller said. "We also saw a higher number of young women being advised not to take it."

His study also indicated, as previous studies have shown, that girls have higher levels of math anxiety than boys.

Researchers said it is not yet clear whether the mathematics achievement levels of boys and girls would continue to be equal in the 11th and 12th grades.

But Linda Weisbeck, a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin who is currently examining that data, said a slight gender gap in favor of young men may reappear at the 12th grade.

"What you have to remember is boys who have difficulty in school are dropping out before the 12th grade," she noted. "Girls who are having difficulty in school are likely to stay in."

Thus, she added, a greater proportion of girls with poor mathematical skills may be taking the tests, leading to lower overall scores.

Her work is also showing that, even in the 10th grade, boys continue to have a slight advantage over girls in mathematical problem-solving--an area where girls have long lagged behind.

Her study, being conducted with Elizabeth Fennema, also of the University of Wisconsin, will be published later this year or early next year.

Ms. Weisbeck also noted that, in comparison with differences in achievement levels between white students and black and Hispanic students, the gender gap in mathematics is small.

"If we could get white students and students of color to show the same differences," she said, "I think we would all breathe a sigh of relief."

Vol. 10, Issue 30, Page 1, 12

Published in Print: April 17, 1991, as Math 'Gender Gap' May Be Narrowing, Researchers Report
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