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Girls Closing the Gap in Math, Researchers Find

July 24, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ A new study puts to rest one of the most widespread myths about boys’ and girls’ aptitude in math. After analyzing 7 million test scores, researchers found no difference.

The findings demonstrate great strides since the 1970s when major studies showed pronounced differences in the scores of males and females. By the 1980s, younger students were matched _ but girls fell behind when they hit adolescence.

Study authors at the University of California-Berkeley and University of Wisconsin-Madison offer several theories behind the improvements, including changes in educational approaches and career expectations.

“Stereotypes are very, very resistant to change, but as a scientist I have to challenge them with data,” said Wisconsin’s Janet S. Hyde, lead investigator of the study, published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

Using vast data generated by the No Child Left Behind legislation, which mandates annual testing of youth from elementary school through high school, the new study concludes that the gender gap has vanished among students of all ages.

Among math whizzes, there remain sex differences.

But they don’t add up to anything definitive. For instance, there are more white boys than girls with scores in the 99th percentile. But among Asian-Americans, it’s reversed: Girls outperform boys. (Reliable data was not available for Hispanics, blacks and American Indians.)

The concept of male supremacy in math became established among many educators and psychologists in the 1970s with the publication of the book “The Psychology of Sex Differences,” written by Stanford emeritus professor Eleanor Maccoby and University of Southern California emeritus professor Carol Nagy Jacklin.

The notion has driven generations of girls away from advanced high school math, legitimizing a pernicious sexual stereotype, feminist scholars have asserted.

But attitudes _ and aptitudes _ have been changing.

In 2005, after former Harvard President Lawrence Summers suggested that women may be biologically unsuited to succeed at math, he was ultimately subtracted from the top post.

“Going back to my mother’s generation, for example, women were commonly encouraged to avoid math courses,” said Suzanne Antink, a calculus teacher at Palo Alto High in Palo Alto, Calif. “I experienced a male math teacher my senior year with the same idea … from his point of view there was no reason for women to be in his class. We have come quite a way since then.”

Today, roughly half Palo Alto High’s calculus students are girls, and the Advanced Placement Statistics course is 60 percent female.

Shelby Pefley, 13, sees similar ratios in her math classes. She plans to take Algebra 2 at Egan Middle School in Los Altos, Calif., next school year.

“Some of the smartest people in my class are girls. We all just hang out together,” Shelby said. “There are so many girls, we’re all just together.”

Girls are doing better because they are taking more advanced courses in high school, according to the research team. After tackling subjects like multi-variable algebra, analysis and calculus, girls are scoring higher on tests.

“Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized in high school, we don’t see gender differences in performance on state tests,” said co-author Marcia Linn, a UC-Berkeley professor of education.

Women, who have more career options these days, now earn 48 percent of all mathematics bachelor’s degrees.

“If you plan on being a full-time homemaker or elementary school teacher, you may think you don’t need math,” said Hyde, a psychology professor. “But if you’re thinking about a serious career _ and want to make sure it is lucrative or prestigious _ you’ll take more math.”

Additionally, psychologists have learned that a major factor in predicting academic success is self-confidence. Girls may be getting more encouragement about their math abilities now than previously.

The research team studied a total of 66 different NCLB-based assessments from 10 states, including California. They calculated the degree of difference between scores in standardized units. In 21, boys did slightly better than girls; in 36, girls did slightly better than boys; in nine, they were matched.

“But when you average them all, you essentially get no difference,” said Hyde.

In a separate analysis, they conceded that a gap persists in one important test, the pre-college Scholastic Aptitude Test.

However, the researchers pointed out that the SAT is not an indication of overall ability, because it is not administered to a random sample of students. What’s more, far more girls take the SAT than boys, “so you’re dipping further down into the female talent pool, which brings down the average score,” said Hyde. “That may be the explanation for (the results), rather than girls aren’t as good as boys in math.”

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(c) 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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