Math, Science Gender Gaps Wider Among High Achievers, Analysis Shows

By Liana Loewus — March 05, 2015 2 min read
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Fifteen-year-old girls are more likely to be proficient in reading, mathematics, and science than their male peers, according to a new analysis of international test data by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But among top-performing students, girls do worse than boys in math and science.

The report, released today, looks at results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compares achievment among students from 65 participating education systems. As I wrote last December, those scores showed U.S. performance overall had stalled, while other nations plowed ahead.

The new report digs into the mountain of data, finding among other things:

  • Fourteen percent of boys and 9 percent of girls did not attain the baseline for proficiency in all three of the core subjects (reading, math, and science);
  • Thirty-nine percent of young men entering university in 2012 chose science-related fields, while just 14 percent of young women did the same.
  • Boys continue to outperform girls overall in math. But in science, the gender gap is small.
  • Gender gaps are larger within the high-achieving population. Among the top 10 percent of students in math, boys outperform girls by an average of 20 score points. Among the top 10 percent in science, boys score an average of 11 points higher.
  • Boys are less likely than girls to report doing homework and more likely to report having negative attitudes toward school.
  • Girls are more likely to report feeling math anxiety than boys. Greater math anxiety is correlated to lower math achievement.

The report’s authors chalk up some of these disparities to lack of self-confidence in girls. "[T]he strong relationship among self-beliefs, gender, and performance in mathematics and science hints that countries may be unable to develop a sufficient number of individuals with strong mathematics and science skills partly because of girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities.”

“Hints” is the operative word in that statement. As I always feel obliged to point out in writing about PISA, the results do not explain why students scored the way they scored, so any theory on causation is just that—a theory. (And any assertion on causation is what I like to call malPISAnce.)

And as I noted when the PISA scores first came out, in the United States, there was no statistical difference between boys’ and girls’ scores in either math or science. So at least there’s that.

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