Federal Study Finds Gains In Gender Equity

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Girls are generally doing as well as or better than boys in school, though they still trail boys in math and science, a federal report released last week shows.

For More Information

Read the report, "Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women."

Gender gaps in education "have in most cases been eliminated and, in others, have significantly decreased," according to "Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women," a report requested by Congress and released April 25 without fanfare by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Girls appear to encounter fewer problems in the early grades than boys do, and they consistently outperform boys in reading and writing, the report says.

As high school seniors, girls have higher educational goals than boys, it notes, and they are more likely to enroll in college in the fall after graduating from high school. Once enrolled in college, freshman women are also more likely than their male counterparts to complete a bachelor's degree within five years.

At the same time, the NCES says, young women continue to lag behind males in mathematics and science achievement in high school and are less likely to major in those fields in college. Similar percentages of girls and boys take challenging math and science courses in high school, however.

For at least one scholar who has studied the issue of girls' educational achievement, the findings are less noteworthy than what she sees as the faulty assumptions the report makes about the existence of a gender gap in education.

"They are perpetuating the myth that girls were behind and have now caught up," argued Judith S. Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "They assume a problem that wasn't there, and then claim victory."

Different Challenges

Gender equity in schools has been a hot-button issue since the early 1990s, when the American Association of University Women released a highly publicized report that contended schools consistently "shortchanged" girls. ("Schools' 'Glass Ceiling' Imperils Girls, Study Says," Feb. 12, 1992.)

The Washington-based group said research showed women and girls were underrepresented in school curricula, that teaching behavior and tests tended to heavily favor boys, and that girls trailed boys in mathematics and the sciences. Such inequities, it argued, severely limited opportunities for women and girls to advance academically and economically.

The AAUW's conclusions have been contested over the years by researchers such as Ms. Kleinfeld, who characterized the group's research as political myth-making. Girls and boys each have their areas of academic strengths and weaknesses, she argues, and schools should not assume girls are being shortchanged. To do so is to risk overlooking the educational needs of boys, she says.

The AAUW shifted its position in 1998 in a follow-up report that said girls were catching up to boys in school. But Pamela S. Haag, the group's director of research, said last week that the turnarounds documented in that report and the new federal study don't signal the end of the challenge. "We're really encouraged by these findings, but things are always changing in education, and it's important to play the watchdog role," she said. "Our organization is now really focused on looking at the differences among girls.

"Now that we have this data," she said, "we really need to look at those differences—among girls and among boys."

Computer Contentions

One area still of concern to the AAUW, Ms. Haag said, is what the association sees as a growing gap between boys and girls in use of computer technology—the piston driving the nation's new economy. In its 1998 report, the group found that both inside and outside school, girls of all ages tended to have less exposure to computers than boys, and represented only a small fraction of the students taking the College Board's Advanced Placement test in computer science.

The federal study, however, concludes that the percentages of boys and girls in the 8th and 11th grades who use a computer every day in school are about the same. The numbers for computer use outside school tell a similar story, the NCES says.

Ms. Kleinfeld, meanwhile, believes it is important to acknowledge that males and females tend to have different interests.

"Women tend to use computers as tools to do things like send e-mails to friends or do a report, while boys tend to use them more as toys," she said. "What alarms me here is the pressure on young women to go into computer science and engineering, instead of a field that they find personally satisfying and interesting."

NAEP Disparities

In areas where there are persistent academic differences between the sexes, the federal researchers reveal a complex chart of ups and downs in their report, which draws primarily on surveys taken by the NCES.

For instance, the study shows that between 1973 and 1994, girls and boys at ages 9 and 13 had similar scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math. In contrast, 17-year-old women often scored lower than their male peers.

But to further complicate the picture, girls at the younger ages in 1996 generally scored below boys taking the test.

In science, girls were more likely to score lower than boys in the younger age groups between 1973 and 1996, and 17-year-old girls consistently scored lower than their male peers. The gap between males and females in science and math scores has narrowed over that time for 17-year-olds, but remains unchanged in the younger age groups.

Among the other findings:

  • Girls in grades 1-12 are less likely than their male peers to be identified as having learning disabilities;
  • Female high school students are more likely than males to take Advanced Placement exams; and
  • Boys and girls drop out of school at similar rates.

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Federal Study Finds Gains In Gender Equity
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