School & District Management

TIMSS: A Closer Look at Gender Gaps in Math and Science

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 30, 2016 1 min read
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The results of the 2015 Trends in International Math and Science Study suggest 20-year declines in math and science gender gaps between boys and girls worldwide, but in the United States, the picture is a little less rosy.

In 1995, 8th grade boys significantly outperformed girls in math in 15 out of 28 participating countries and education systems, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which supervises the United States’ participation in TIMSS. By 2015, only six countries showed statistically significant differences favoring boys, and in some countries, the gender gaps even had even reversed.

“I’m a father of three daughters, so I’m always happy to see that,” said Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the IEA, the international research group that runs TIMSS every four years. “We see that the world seems to be going in the right direction. The achievement overall is going up.”

In the United States, gender gaps in mathematics closed at both grades 4 and 8 from 2011 to 2015, but among 4th graders, the narrowing gap seems to be from boys losing ground while girls held theirs.

In math, there have been small but consistent differences in the United States favoring boys,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of NCES. However, she noted, “in the past these gender gaps were often differences at 20 points or more, but in 2015, the gaps were 4 points at 4th grade and 5 points at 8th grade.”

Among 18-year-olds taking challenging courses, U.S. girls’ performance has on average declined significantly since 1995, when the United States last participated in the TIMSS Advanced study:

“It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on; the issues [around gender gaps] are very complex,” said Matthew Larson, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, but he added that stereotypes about math and science fields more generally could be at play: “I think as students leave middle school and enter high school, societal messages about who mathematics is for and who STEM careers are for become more deeply embedded.”

Similarly in science, gender gaps closed, but somewhat at the expense of boys’ achievement:

Carr noted that in both math and science, boys in high school seem to be enrolling in advanced math and science classes more often than girls, which could also be contributing to the high school gender gaps.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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