Girls and Boys Get Math Scores Equal (So Are They the Same Now?)

29 07 2008

Good review of the findings, cock of the snook for it to BitchPhD.

The effect sizes they found — ranging from 0.01 and 0.06 — were basically zero, indicating that the average scores of girls and boys were the same.

This had to be my favorite part though, it’s about time we got some research ammunition on this. . .

Again, the team found little difference, as did a comparison of how well boys and girls did on questions requiring complex problem solving. What the researchers did find, though, was a disturbing lack of questions that tested this ability. In fact, they found none whatsoever on the 10 state assessments for NCLB. . .




22 responses

29 07 2008
Nance Confer

And I had yet another call from a Mom who is going to homeschool her kids because of this testing. They test well, she just doesn’t want their minds to rot. The schools are losing this family that otherwise would have been an asset.


29 07 2008

You have been nominated for Alasandra’s HBA, I have a badge you can put on your blog if you would like.

30 07 2008
Crimson Wife

I’ve read somewhere that when it comes to mathematical ability, boys have a wider distribution curve than girls do. So if one looks at both the top 5% *AND* the bottom 5% one finds a disproportionate percentage of boys. For that reason, even if we could somehow eliminate all the cultural discrimination against females there probably wouldn’t be a 50/50 ratio when it comes to the very tippy-top mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. It would probably be something like 66/33. But the fact that it’s currently around 90/10 shows that there is still very much gender discrimination (both direct and indirect) in those fields.

30 07 2008

I’d love to see the source on that, CW.


31 07 2008
Crimson Wife

It took me a bit to find an academic source (as opposed to a passing mention in for example The Washington Times) but the following comes from a 2005 article by Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard in the American Psychologist:

“The third and final claim of a male advantage for academic careers in math and science accepts the conclusion that males and females have equal aptitudes for math and science, on average, and focuses instead on the performance ranges of males and females. According to this claim, the distribution of male talent shows greater spread. Because males show greater variability in mathematical ability than do females, more males show extreme mathematical talent….

Research has shown that the preponderance of boys stems both from a difference in the variability of test scores and from a difference in means, and that it appears both on the SAT-M and on other, similar tests (Deary, Thorpe, Wilson, Starr, & Whalley, 2003; Feingold, 1992; Hedges & Nowell, 1995; Hyde, Fennema, & Lamon, 1990; Nowell & Hedges, 1998).”

Dr. Spelke questions whether the higher percentage of boys getting top scores is due to a truly unequal distribution of math talent or whether the SAT-M scores somehow overestimate the abilities of talented boys relative to girls.

She notes that in more recent samples, the numbers of male and female participants were nearly equal, as were the numbers of boys and girls in advanced high school mathematics classes. As a result, the ratio of boys to girls among the highest scorers dropped from 10.7:1 in the early ’80’s down to 2.8:1 in the mid-’90’s.

1 08 2008
Nance Confer

Thanks, CW, for taking the time to dig this out. I have to make sandwiches now but will read this later. Thanks!


2 08 2008
Nance Confer

Dr. Spelke does more than question. She clearly states that the differences observed in high school test results are not genetically linked, do not continue into college and, she concludes, do not explain the differences in ultimate career choices.

See the following quotes and the whole article which, it turns out, is not very long.



This article considers 3 claims that cognitive sex differ-
ences account for the differential representation of men
and women in high-level careers in mathematics and sci-
ence: (a) males are more focused on objects from the
beginning of life and therefore are predisposed to better
learning about mechanical systems; (b) males have a pro-
file of spatial and numerical abilities producing greater
aptitude for mathematics; and (c) males are more variable
in their cognitive abilities and therefore predominate at the
upper reaches of mathematical talent. Research on cogni-
tive development in human infants, preschool children, and
students at all levels fails to support these claims. Instead,
it provides evidence that mathematical and scientific rea-
soning develop from a set of biologically based cognitive
capacities that males and females share. These capacities
lead men and women to develop equal talent for mathe-
matics and science.


If one gauges students’ talent at mathematics by their
successful mastery of the demanding material required of
college mathematics majors, one will conclude that men
and women have equal aptitude for mathematics, not only
in the general population of college students but in selected
samples of students with high talent.


Research on the cognitive abilities of males and females,
from birth to maturity, does not support the claim that men
have greater intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science.


The finding that men and women show equal aptitude
for mathematics and science does not imply that humans’
genetic endowment is irrelevant to these achievements. . . . The negative conclusions of this review imply only that our
considerable gifts for mathematics and science have been
bestowed, in equal measure, on males and females.


Moreover, male and female undergraduates are not equally
likely to major in physics or engineering (Xie & Shauman,
2003), and mathematically gifted men and women tend to
gravitate toward different sorts of careers (Benbow et al.,
2000). Might there be some genetically determined cogni-
tive difference, not yet discovered, that accounts for these
The questions addressed in this review are empirical,
and so the answer to every Might there be . . .? question is
yes. Nevertheless, the wealth of research on cognition and
cognitive development, conducted over 40 years, provides
no reason to believe that the gender imbalances on science
faculties, or among physics majors, stem from sex differ-
ences in intrinsic aptitude.


2 08 2008
Crimson Wife

But what does the fact that girls get higher grades than boys with the same SAT scores really mean? It’s been my observation that bright boys are significantly more likely than bright girls to underachieve in terms of their grades in school. Often it’s because they are less tolerant of all the “busywork” assigned.

My younger brother and I tested the exact same for IQ and scored within 10 points of each other on the SAT. But I was a good little worker bee in school, got nearly all A’s, and graduated salutatorian of my class. By contrast, my brother refused to comply with any assignment he felt was mere busywork, and as a result his grades were all over the place. He just barely graduated by the skin of his teeth. His GPA reflected his compliance rather than his actual ability.

So I disagree with Dr. Spelke’s argument that girls’ higher grades are proof that the SAT underestimates their math ability.

2 08 2008

Well, I can’t understand what either one of you is arguing.

Seems to me the main finding is that School and School Grading and School Testing and School Definitions and School Social Norms are so self-referential and screwed up that “we” literally learn nothing from it all anymore. . .

2 08 2008
Nance Confer

JJ, I think that is the point in this 2005 study. High school testing tells us nothing.

This is derived, in the study, from what comes after the high school testing — real life. As much as college is real life. And as much as initial career choices are real life.

CW, the experiences of one brother and sister prove nothing. Not saying it didn’t happen. Not saying I don’t see differences between my son and my daughter. Not saying girls might not put up with the crap in high schools better than boys, for a variety of reasons.

What this is all saying is that none of this is driven by a genetic strength or weakness on either side.


2 08 2008

Oh good, I feel better — I think! 😉

3 08 2008
Crimson Wife

It just seems to me that whenever I hear of a bright underachiever, 90% of the time it’s a boy. Just the other day there was the story in the Washington Post about the kid who got thrown out of the elite Thomas Jefferson school because he didn’t have a 3.0. Why did Matthew Nuti get the “D” in World Geography that turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of his GPA? Because he didn’t do what he called “painful” and “rote” maps his teacher assigned.

There was another story in the WP a couple months ago about a kid who scored extremely high on standardized tests (1560 SAT, 800 on the math SAT-II, 740 on the chemistry SAT-II, 5’s on the AP exams in calculus and chemistry, etc) but got a C+ in his high school chemistry class because he didn’t do all the required assignments.

I can think of several other examples among people I know personally aside from my brother.

3 08 2008

CW, I still can’t understand what you are contending, or why you’re contending it? I think this is the key to my confusion:
“His GPA reflected his compliance rather than his actual ability. ”

Well yes, of course. Compliance is a huge part of schooling, the whole point even! Horses in harness have economic viability as good workers. Wild mustangs don’t.

So GPAs and SAT scores are both intended to rank and sort not by raw ability but tolerance for working in harness all day every day until the job is done and the money is made, and college grades do the same. Seems to me this is particularly true in “math” ability, where the only direct way to make it pay off in the marketplace is to stay in school and teach! Society requiring algebra and beyond of all students isn’t about finding and developing pure math ability. Society doesn’t really need that or reward it in the marketplace. Math classes are basically just more workplace screening and sorting.

It’s apocryphal among Mensa members that smart often fails to translate into rich and successful, and sometimes not even into academic degrees — no doubt because bit-fitting often fails, first at school and later in the marketplace. The most brilliantly abled among us are seldom the most economically viable (and so what, if we were?!) Conversely, earning those degrees doesn’t mean we’re the most brilliant in terms of raw ability. This applies to male and female, without any significant differences genetic or otherwise AFAIK from the research.

School reflects society and neither is much of a meritocracy. So again, I am at a loss to understand the point you’re making. . .

3 08 2008
Nance Confer

Right, CW, we’ve all heard those stories. I’m sure they are true. I’ve got one of these kids sleeping in the next room.

Our irrelevant story: DD is acing all the online courses she has chosen for herself as part of her grand plan; she mentions how stupid some of the tasks are in the courses but does them. DS took one look at the course content and turned up his nose. We all, DD included, agree that he is brilliant.

The point? DD, even in our unschooling, feminist household is able or willing to go along with garbage to get what she thinks is a valuable thing. DS is not willing and does not see the value.

None of this has anything to do with how intelligent either one of them is or what their natural genetic abilities are with regard to math (DS is a whiz; DD is an average student compared — getting As in grade-appropriate material).

And that is the point. The original assertion here was that there was some genetic ability in math that boys have and girls do not have. That is not true.

All the rest of it — the real life examples we can all come up with — are the result of something else.


3 08 2008
Crimson Wife

The point I’m trying to make is that I find Dr. Spelke’s argument unconvincing. She believes that because girls tend to get better grades than boys with the same SAT scores, that means the SAT underestimates girls’ innate ability. What I’m saying is that grades are not a particularly good measure of the student’s intellectual ability because such a large component of them are typically based on the student’s compliance. Test scores, of course, are not a perfect measurement of innate ability by a long shot. But I believe that when there is a discrepancy between grades and test scores, the test scores are generally more reflective of that student’s actual ability. Dr. Spelke, by contrast, believes that grades are more reflective of the student’s ability than test scores (at least for females). That’s how she dismisses the research findings that the highest scorers are disproportionately likely to be male. If the tests do, in fact, underestimate girls’ ability, then one can’t use them as evidence of biologically based gender differences in ability.

3 08 2008

But CW, did you find my Red Sox political parable persuasive? 🙂

3 08 2008
Crimson Wife

The jury is still out with me in terms of the Manny trade…

4 08 2008

CW, I thought you were presenting Dr. S’s paper to support your point, “For that reason, even if we could somehow eliminate all the cultural discrimination against females there probably wouldn’t be a 50/50 ratio when it comes to the very tippy-top mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. It would probably be something like 66/33.”

And I think you miss her point that she is comparing high school testing and after-high school high-level mathematics and after-college career choices.

She is not comparing high school testing with high school grades.

She looked at the testing to see if it matched up with the later actual performance. It did not.

This was not a “belief” on her part but her actual research results.

All research can be questioned, of course, but let’s look at what she actually wrote.

And I’d still like to see something supporting your original recollection of a wider distribution of ability.

One thing I do not like about the Berkeley study is that it isn’t comparing boys versus girls taking a standard test like the SAT but, as I understand it, compares the results of the stupid state-level tests, like our FCAT here. These have become so discredited, I’m not sure we can really know anything from them except that all ps students have been drilled to death on them.


4 08 2008

But CW, you’ve got a whole weekend of data now to help you make up your mind! 😉

“Jason Bay is 4-for-11 with a homer, three RBIs and six runs scored in his first three games with the Sox. . .”

4 08 2008

I notice my comments are tending to settle into the same opening. Hey, I could set up a little sidebar feature here at Snook called, “But CW. . .”
Chicago’s Mike Royko loved baseball AND he wrote recurring political columns as conversations with a wise working-class taxicab driver as Everyman (in real life he was the son of an immigrant cab driver.) I see several parallels. Oh and seeing his Damon Runyon Award mentioned here connects for me too, because at yesterday’s maitinee we saw Young Son’s summer drama teacher as Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra from the movie version) in Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls.” I may write more about that as a separate post.

Royko was never shy about holding forth his opinions — on sports, politics or the meaning of life.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1972, and in 1995 received the Damon Runyon Award, given annually to the journalist who best exemplifies the style that made Runyon one of the best columnists of his day.

4 08 2008
Crimson Wife

I brought up Dr. Spelke’s article because she did the leg work in quoting the actual sources for the finding that the highest scorers are disproportionately male (those would be the 4 articles by other research teams). I wanted to find a credible source for the finding rather than just an indirect reference in the popular media (especially one with a blatantly conservative bias like the Washington Times). One does not have to agree with Dr. Spelke’s analysis of what that finding means to view her article as a credible source, wouldn’t you agree?

4 08 2008
Nance Confer

I do agree that the Washington Times is worse than no source at all.

But it remains unclear to me that the sources you seem to think say “. . . that when it comes to mathematical ability, boys have a wider distribution curve than girls do” are any more than reports of higher scores on high school tests like the SAT.

Which are not the same thing as mathematical ability.


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