School & District Management

What You Might Not Know About the Gender Gap in Reading

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 26, 2015 4 min read
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Gender stereotypes persist because they are short-hand for the often incredibly complicated factors that go into how children learn. It can be easier to argue over whether it’s true that “boys don’t like reading” or “girls don’t like math” than to really dig into data on why Student A struggles while Student B excels.

The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy’s annual report on American education makes a good start in digging into the apparent gender gap between boys and girls in reading. Girls have outscored boys in reading at ages 9, 13, and 17 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress every year since it was first administered in 1971, and report author Tom Loveless notes that as far back as the 1940s, educators found girls outscoring boys in reading comprehension and vocabulary. Moreover, Loveless finds that the reading gap favoring girls appears more consistent across different countries than the math gap favoring boys.

While those findings uphold the common wisdom, the study later upends two other education truisms: that boys are falling further and further behind, and that the reading gap occurs because girls simply enjoy reading more than boys do.

Loveless analyzed data from the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessement, which in 2000 and 2009 asked students four different questions about how much they enjoyed reading. The study compared students’ reported enjoyment of reading to their test scores, country by country.

“It turns out there’s no relationship at all,” Loveless told me. Some countries, like Germany, did see a boost in reading achievement at the same time as boys reported enjoyment of reading increased, but both France and Ireland also improved boys’ reported enjoyment of reading—and both countries saw significant declines in reading performance.

“People tend to enjoy things they are good at, so in that sense ... by boosting reading achievement, you might and probably will boost enjoyment. But it doesn’t necessarily work the other way,” Loveless told me. “Before we spend a lot of money and adopt interventions that just target enjoyment with the expectation that they will boost achievement, we need to think twice.”

Similarly, using NAEP longterm trend data, the study found that gender gaps have been closing, not opening, since the 1970s. At age 9, girls as a whole outscored boys by 13 points (on a 500-point scale) in 1971, but only by 5 points in 2012, a significant decrease Loveless said was driven by boys improving their scores faster than girls did in the intervening years. Students at ages 13 and 17 showed similar, though less significant, gap closures.

Pinpointing the Gaps

It’s good news that boys are closing the gap in reading since the 1970s, it’s also worth digging a little deeper to pinpoint why. Though Loveless did not differentiate gender gaps by subgroups, I took a look at two categories—overall reading performance and socioeconomic status—using the same NAEP trend data on gender gaps in reading from 1971 to 2012, among 9 year olds. It’s pretty clear that not only have the gender gaps been shrinking over time, as Loveless finds, but that in any given year, there’s a big difference between gender gaps among students in the lowest percentile of performance and those at the top 10 percent:

On the whole, the gaps between boys and girls in reading are significantly larger among students performing below average on the NAEP in general.

Loveless said the results are probably in line with how school districts would interpret the gender gap, anyway: “If you have an intervention, you want to tie it to students who aren’t doing well to begin with,” he said. “It makes sense that if you have extra money and want to improve reading, low-achieving boys might be where you want to take a look at spending that extra money.”

But focusing only on the gender gap may skew the picture for whom reading interventions should target. Let’s look at one more piece of data: socioeconomic status.

There are fewer years of usable information in NAEP for poverty status and gender, but you see a similar pattern emerge for reading gaps when 9-year-old students are grouped by whether or not they qualify for free or reduced-price meals:

Gender gaps do close for boys in both groups from 2004 to 2012, but significantly more for boys who are not in poverty. In fact, for children in poverty, the average girl’s scale score in reading on the NAEP was 204 out of 500 in 2004, rising to 211 in 2012. Boys’ scores rose from 195 to only 203 during the same time frame.

By contrast, the scale scores for boys not in poverty rose 10 points, from 224 to 234, from 2004 to 2012. While that’s lower than girls’ scale score of 236 in 2012, it’s 25 points higher than the score for low-income girls.

School districts need more research that digs into data on gender gaps to better understand why they happen, why they change, and what helps all children over time.

For more on the Brookings report’s study of how students’ enjoyment and motivation affects their learning, check out my colleague Evie Blad’s coverage over at Rules for Engagement. You can see more details on the study in the video below.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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