Equity & Diversity Opinion

skoolboy Goes to the Olympics, II: Gender

By skoolboy — August 11, 2008 3 min read

On Friday, eduwonkette wondered about how gender figured into my Olympics-inspired international comparison of high student literacy in math and science. Ask and you shall receive, e. Today I’m reporting data on the percentage of males and females in different countries and economies that are high achievers, and within-country differences in these percentages. On Friday, I was looking at the top 5% of students in each country. Today, I’m using the percentage of students in each country scoring at the highest level on the 2006 PISA science and math literacy scales. (Yeah, proficiency scores, but what can you do.) In science, there are six levels of proficiency, with 1.3% of students across the OECD countries scoring at Level 6. This is more selective than the top 5% in each country. But I should point out that PISA assesses the real-world application of math and science skills, and is not a narrowly-tailored test of particular math and science disciplines. Such tests might well yield different country rankings and gender differences.

Only five countries have a statistically significant difference in the percentage of males and females achieving the top level in science: Austria, Japan, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong-China, and Israel. In 37 other countries, including the U.S., the percentages of males and females at the top level in science are statistically indistinguishable. Among males, seven countries have a significantly higher percentage at the top level than the U.S. does, and 19 countries have a significantly lower percentage. 17 countries have a percentage of males at the top level that is indistinguishable from the U.S. percentage. (Finland and New Zealand are at the top of the international heap, with 4.6% and 4.4%, respectively, whereas 1.6% of U.S. males are at the top level.) Among females, only two countries (also Finland and New Zealand) have a significantly higher percentage scoring at the top level in science than does the U.S., whereas 19 countries have a percentage that is significantly lower. 20 countries are statistically indistinguishable from the U.S.’s percentage of 1.5% of females at the top level.

In math, about 3% of the students in OECD countries score at Level 6, the top level of mathematics proficiency. In 24 countries, the percentage of males at Level 6 is reliably higher than the percentage of females, and in no country does the percentage favor females. (In 22 countries, including the U.S., the percentages of males and females at Level 6 do not differ statistically.) 26 countries have a statistically greater percentage of males at Level 6 than the 1.5% of U.S. males who achieve this level, and only 9 countries are lower than the U.S., with 15 countries at about the same percentage. U.S. females don’t fare much better against their international peers. In 15 countries, the percentage of young women scoring at Level 6 exceeds the U.S. percentage of 1.0%, and in six countries the percentage at Level 6 is significantly lower than the U.S. percentage.

Most striking to skoolboy was a comparison of the math performance of females in other countries to that of U.S. males. In 15 countries, the percentage of females achieving Level 6 on the PISA mathematics assessment exceeds the percentage of U.S. males at Level 6. Chinese Taipei (which is kicking everybody’s butts), Hong Kong-China, Liechtenstein, and Korea all have at least four times as many females at Level 6 in math, proportionally, as the U.S. has males at Level 6.

What about reading? About 8% of students in OECD countries scored at Level 5, the top proficiency level, in 2006. In 35 countries, the percentage of females at Level 5 exceeded the percentage of males by a statistically significant amount. In 18 countries, the percentages for males and females were indistinguishable. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not included in this comparison, because we dropped the baton in the relay: a mistake in printing the reading test booklets invalidated the scores.

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