July 7, 1995 in Nation/World

Test Scores Reinforce Gender Roles Boys Better In Science, Math; Girls Better In Reading, Writing

Washington Post

A new scientific study suggests that girls perform better on mental tests of reading and writing while boys perform better on tests of science and mathematics, which could have a profound impact on their occupations in later life.

The report, by Larry V. Hedges and Amy Nowell of the University of Chicago, analyzed six large national surveys of American male and female teen-agers’ performance on tests of mental ability conducted over the past three decades.

The study, published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, found that the average sex differences in most measured abilities were small. Nevertheless, the differences in performance seen in science, mathematics, reading and writing - combined with the fact that boys’ scores tended to vary more widely than girls’ - frequently produced situations where boys greatly outnumbered girls at the top or bottom of the scale.

For example, seven times as many boys as girls scored in the top 5 percent on science tests, and about twice as many boys as girls scored in the top 5 percent on math tests, said Hedges, a professor of education and social science.

In mechanical reasoning, electronics information, and auto and shop information, boys also performed much better than girls, the study found. In areas such as mechanical comprehension and other vocational talents, 8 to 10 times as many boys as girls scored in the top 10 percent, according to the report.

On the other hand, boys were much more likely than girls to score near the bottom of the scale on tests of reading comprehension, memory and perceptual speed.

Hedges said the differences in scores between boys and girls showed remarkably little change between 1960, when the first survey was conducted, and 1992, the year of the most recent survey.

People who have careers in science and engineering are overwhelmingly more likely to have scored in the 90th percentile or higher on mathematics tests in high school, the study found.

Differences in the abilities of the sexes are likely to figure increasingly in policy discussions about salary fairness, the report noted. But the study sheds little light on the origin of sex difference in aptitude.

“I believe the sex differences in abilities are caused by social constraints rather than biology,” Hedges said. “Traditionally, there is more encouragement for men to learn math and science while women are encouraged to learn literature.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email