Girls Outshine Boys on Federal Exam of Tech, Engineering Skills

By Benjamin Herold — April 30, 2019 5 min read
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The country’s 8th graders improved their scores on a national technology and engineering exam, with girls significantly outpacing boys and most gains seen among higher-performing students.

Overall, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) in 2018 were two points higher than when the National Center for Education Statistics first administered the exam in 2014. The share of students scoring proficient or above rose from 43 percent to 46 percent.

“Girls have done extremely well in this assessment,” said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment at NCES. “We did not see improvement at the lower-end of our ability distribution.”

The TEL exam is administered every four years. Between January and March of 2018, 15,400 8th graders in about 600 schools took the assessment, which is given on laptop computers.

The test uses a mix of multiple-choice questions and scenario-based performance tasks. A sample task might involve students figuring out how to promote a fictional recreation center for teenagers—first selecting audio clips for a podcast, then identifying the key facts that will resonate with a target audience and giving constructive feedback to digital “partners.” The goal is to gauge not just students’ technical skills, but their ability to work well with others to solve real-world problems.

It was on those skills that girls dramatically outperformed boys, outscoring them by nearly 8 points on practices related to “communicating and collaborating.” Boys were particularly poor, for example, at properly crediting other people for their work and ideas, something they were significantly less likely to say they learned about or discussed in school.

“It suggests that maybe boys could do better, and this is a path forward for them, if we could help them improve in this area,” said Carr of NCES.

Encouraging Growth

Big-picture, the TEL exam is an outgrowth of two big trends in K-12: efforts to expand the pipeline of students into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and experiments with new forms of digital assessment that aim to measure students’ problem-solving processes.

But TEL isn’t limited to students who aim to become engineers or computer scientists. And one of the purported benefits of its scenario-based tasks is that educators can’t teach specifically to the test.

Instead, the exam “is designed to address how well students have mastered the processes and tools they need to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them,” according to a frequently asked questions document released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

On that front, the widespread TEL gains are reason to be encouraged, officials said.


For all 8th graders, scores on content related to developing, maintaining, and troubleshooting new technologies were up 3 points. Scores on content related to understanding the effects of technology on society were up an average of 2 points. So were scores related to students’ ability to solve problems with technology.

One factor that may have contributed to the improvements: meaningful changes since 2014 in the technology- and engineering-related learning experiences students are having, both in and out of school.

In a survey administered along with the TEL exam, for example, students who said they frequently take things apart to see how they work performed roughly 10 points better on content related to “designs and systems” than students who did not report such experiences.

Similarly, students who reported taking at least one course in a topic such as robotics or computer coding scored 8 points higher than peers who did not have such a course under their belts.

Here, though, the survey also identified significant gaps in the opportunities available to students from different groups.

Overall, 57 percent of 8th graders said they’d taken at least one technology- or engineering-related course, compared with 52 percent four years earlier.

See Also: How These 4 Educators Are Using Ed Tech to Transform Their Teaching

But students living in poverty were significantly less likely to take such classes than more affluent students. And despite their overall strong performance, girls continued to be less likely to take technology- and engineering-related classes than boys.

“The message to [school] administrators is that we need to encourage girls to take more of these technology and engineering courses,” said Carr of NCES. “If students take at least one of those courses, they do better.”

Achievement Gaps Remain

Other big gaps were also evident in the TEL results.

Asian, Black, and white students all performed better on the exam in 2018 than they did four years earlier. But the average scores among Asian (169) and white (163) students continued to dramatically outpace the average scores among Black (132) and Hispanic (139) students.

Students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, a measure of poverty, also scored nearly 30 points lower than students who were not eligible for the program.

And students in private Catholic schools outperformed students in traditional public and charter schools.

What kinds of specific skills separated students who scored well on the TEL exam from those who didn’t?

Nearly all high performers were able to “describe one way the environment could benefit from the use of simplified packaging for a product that is sold online,” compared with just one-fourth of low-performers.

Likewise, just one in 5 of the lowest-performing students correctly identified copyrighted images that could legally be used on a website, compared with 4 in 5 high performers.

Particularly concerning, NCES officials said, is that the scores of the lowest-performing students on the TEL exam stayed flat since 2014. That mirrors trends in other subject areas covered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

That pattern “warrants additional investigation by the instructional and research communities,” said NCES Commissioner James “Lynn” Woodworth in a statement.

NCES hopes to expand the TEL exam to 4th and 12th grades, saying there is significant enthusiasm around the exam. But financial considerations will play a role in the decision, which will ultimately be made the National Assessment Governing Board, comprised of governors, state and local lawmakers, and others. A decision is expected later this year.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as Girls Outshine Boys on Test of Tech, Engineering Skills


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