July 24, 2008

Girls, Boys Do Equally Well on Math Tests

CHICAGO _ Desiree Epps-Davis, 14, says she struggles every day to convince some teachers at her Chicago public school that she is just as good at math as the boys in her class.

Now, a major new study has proved her right.

Researchers comparing the math scores of seven million students nationwide from 2005 to last year found that girls and boys do equally well on math tests they have taken between the second and 11th grades.

While previous studies have come to a similar conclusion, a new study by five professors at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California at Berkeley is by far the most sweeping, using data from 10 states.

Epps-Davis, who will be going into her freshman year at Noble South College Prep, wasn't surprised. She spends three hours a day solving math problems over summer vacation.

Her mother, LaTonya Epps, said she believes the Chicago school system doesn't spend enough time on math, which she sees as the key to getting into a good college and a successful career.

"Woman need math just as much as guys if we are competing for all the same jobs.... We need to be strong in math also," Epps said.

The study was also praised by Chicago Public Schools officials who said such research helps put unfounded stereotypes to rest.

John Loehr, a Chicago school official who helps develop math curriculum, said girls in Chicago public schools score on par with boys in math on college ACT exams.

He said they are working with teachers to coach them to treat students equally.

"Studies like this help debunk these well-entrenched myths that there are certain subjects that are not for boys or certain subjects that are not for girls," Loehr said.

Ellen Estrada, principal of Walter Payton College Prep High School, ranked as one of the country's top 100 high schools, said girls from her school have scored among the best students in national math competitions.

"In the right setting, girls are going to flourish in any area of academia," she said.

Until 1980, girls took fewer advanced math and science classes and didn't perform as well on standardized tests, according to math educators. Some experts at the time even suggested that there was a math gene in males that gave them an edge.

But by 2000, high school girls and boys were studying calculus at the same rate, the educators said.

The reason is several-fold, they said. Women know they need to study math to attend a good college, and many schools and states are now also increasing their science and math requirements.

"Part of it is an increased awareness that math is important," said Marcia Linn, a professor at California and one of the authors of the study.

Women are now also earning about the same number of math bachelor degrees as men, the National Science Foundation said."A number of us in the older generation have been one of very few, the only one in the class," said Cathy Kessel, the president of the Association of Women in Mathematics and a math education consultant. "Now, attitudes are changing."

But Epps-Davis said she has been told constantly by some teachers that boys are better at math and science than girls.

She said this stereotype was difficult to overcome.

"It made me feel like they were degrading girls and I thought it was wrong," Epps-Davis said.

She said some teachers assume that boys will be the ones going on to college, into the work force and heading families, so they focus on them. She asked to move out of a sixth grade math class because the male teacher focused on the boys so much that she didn't believe she was progressing adequately.

"He would make it seem like the girls didn't need to learn," she said.

Though women are getting an equal number of math bachelor's degrees, fewer go on to get advanced math or engineering degrees.

Women hold just 20 percent of engineering jobs nationwide and about a quarter of computer and math positions.

Experts blame this on a variety of factors, including sexism in the workplace, the challenges of balancing a job and a family, and boy-friendly science and math classes at the earliest stages of schooling."Females ... are turned away from these fields by others, whether it be through discrimination or socialization toward 'female-friendly' fields," Christine Min Wotipka, a Stanford education professor, wrote in an e-mail.

A new study also suggests that some women may be less interested in math-related careers.

University of Kansas professors Ronald Ash and Joshua Rosenbloom surveyed hundreds of information technology workers, and hundreds of people in careers where women and men are represented more equally. They concluded that on average women may prefer jobs where they can interact more with people, while math-oriented careers can sometimes be solitary pursuits.

Janet Hyde, a Wisconsin professor and one of the authors of the math study, is optimistic because more women are now pursuing advanced math degrees.

"I do think the trend will continue," she said.


(Erickson reported from Washington and Sadovi from Chicago.)


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