Math, Reading Gaps By Gender Persist, Global Study Finds

By Erik W. Robelen — March 15, 2013 3 min read
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You’ve heard it before and a new international study drives home the point: Boys, on average, outperform girls in math, while girls tend to score higher in reading.

However, the new study brings some further nuance to this topic. For one, it finds that the global reading gap for boys is three times as large as the math gap for girls. Also, the study finds the largest math gap is among high-achieving boys and girls. For reading, the gap for boys was most pronounced among the lowest-performing students.

And, to add one further dimension, those nations with a smaller gender difference in math achievement tended to have a larger reading gap for boys.

The study looked at achievement in 75 nations, drawing on a decade’s worth of data from the Program for International Student Achievement, or PISA.

The researchers argue that a better understanding of what’s driving the gaps could help educators eliminate them.

“Educational systems could be improved by acknowledging that, in general, boys and girls are different,” David Geary, the study’s coauthor and a professor at the University of Missouri, said in a press release. “The consistent pattern within nations suggests the sex differences are not simply related to socioeconomic factors.” The other coauthor is Gijabert Stoet from the University of Leeds in England.

To be sure, the researchers found exceptions to the rule. In some countries, for instance, math achievement was about the same between boys and girls, or girls outperformed boys. But on average, boys had higher scores. Also, the gender gaps in both reading and math were evident in many nations seen as having what the researchers called “high gender equality.”

As I mentioned, the study did not look simply at average scores for nations. It also dove more deeply into different levels of achievement to better understand what may be happening. For instance, the top 5 percent of scores within nations generally showed girls to be lower in math and boys to be lower in reading. That same pattern continued in lower-scoring groups, though when it reached the lowest performing students, it evened out in math. Meanwhile, in reading the gaps were most pronounced at the lowest levels.

“The implication is that if policymakers decide that changes in these sex differences are desired, different approaches will be needed to achieve this for reading and mathematics,” the study says. “Interventions that focus on high-achieving girls in mathematics and on low-achieving boys in reading are likely to yield the strongest educational benefits.”

Gender gaps in education are nothing new, to be sure. Last year, I examined the issue in math and science. What I discovered was that gaps for girls in this country are still evident across a variety of measures. For example, in all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested in the Advanced Placement program, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011. Data from NAEP, the “nation’s report card,” finds gaps in both math and science. However, while the math gap is statistically significant, it was quite small, just 1 point in grades 4 and 8 on the 0-to-500 scale in 2011.

On the most recent PISA in 2009, U.S. boys outperformed girls in both math and science. In fact, the gender gaps for American students were among the largest of the countries tested.

Curiously, data from another global assessment tell a different story. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, results from 2011 show little difference in the global math average between boys and girls at grade 4 (for 42 nations). At the 8th grade, girls outperformed boys. As for the United States, boys and girls performed about the same at grade 8, while at grade 4 girls trailed boys.

In science, the TIMSS report found “little achievement difference” between 4th grade boys and girls, when averaged across the 50 participating nations. At the 8th grade, girls, on average, outperformed boys across 42 participating nations.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.