The notion that boys are better at math simply doesn’t add up, according to a study to be published today in the journal Science.
An analysis of standardized test scores from more than 7.2 million U.S. students in grades 2 through 11 found no difference in math scores for girls and boys, contradicting a pervasive belief that most women aren’t hard-wired for careers in science and technology.
The study also undermined the assumption – espoused by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in 2005 – that boys are more likely to be math geniuses. Girls scored in the top 5 percent almost as often as boys, the data showed.
“Both parents and teachers continue to hold the stereotype that boys are better than girls,” said psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who led the study. “That’s just not accurate.”
Hyde and her colleagues examined data from math tests administered between 2005 to 2007 as part of the No Child Left Behind initiative. Comparing the average scores of girls and boys in 10 states, the researchers found that neither gender consistently outpaced the other in any state or at any grade level.
Even test questions from the National Assessment of Education Progress that were designed to measure complex reasoning skills found that gender differences were minuscule, according to the study.
“There’s nothing in any of these data that would suggest that girls can’t do math or aren’t doing well in math,” said Diane Halpern, a professor of psychology at California’s Claremont McKenna College who was not involved in the study.
However, she noted that girls generally score better on tests that are closely aligned with classroom curriculum, including the standardized tests used for No Child Left Behind.
Boys typically score higher on the math portion of the SAT, a fact often cited as evidence of greater math ability. But since more girls take the college entrance exam, the results aren’t comparable, Hyde said.
Studies in the 1990s found that boys and girls in elementary school scored equally well on math tests, but that by the time students reached high school, boys outscored girls on tests involving complex problem solving.
Hyde said pressures to get into selective colleges have prompted girls to take more advanced math classes, including calculus, and that probably explains the improvement in test scores.
Cathy Kessel, president for the Association for Women in Mathematics, said such nonacademic issues as child care have dissuaded girls from pursuing math-oriented fields.
“There may not be any one factor,” said Kessel, a consultant in math education in Berkeley, Calif. “It’s probably more complicated.”
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