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Girls as good as boys in math - or is it something else?

By Murray Bourne, 03 Aug 2008

There has been quite a flap over Science magazine's research that shows girls are as good as boys in math. From the New York Times:

The findings, reported in the July 25 issue of Science magazine, are based on math scores from seven million students in 10 states, tested in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys.

Like all educational "research", we need to be careful how we interpret this data. (Before I go any further, and to fend off tons of hate mail, let me state that I've felt for a long time that given the right social conditions, encouragement and purpose, girls will tend to perform better than boys at math. So my agenda here is not to question the idea that girls can do math.)

OK, so 7 million students completed math tests and their results were compared. What was the nature of those math tests? Were they all multiple choice, the preferred option by most states since it is the cheapest?

One interpretation is that girls have learned how to take multiple-choice tests equally as well as boys (or as badly, depending on your point of view).

For a different conclusion, using a different data set, you may be interested to read the gender differences that are apparent from the TIMMS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study), in TIMMS 2005 Gender Differences in Achievement. This provides a fascinating insight into those countries that value math and those which believe that girls can do math.

This quote brings up another issue that I have with this research:

Although boys in high school performed better than girls in math 20 years ago, the researchers found, that is no longer the case. The reason, they said, is simple: Girls used to take fewer advanced math courses than boys, but now they are taking just as many.

Really? What do we define as "advanced math" here? Is "advanced math" Grade 10? High school? University? What kind of vague term is "advanced math"? There is still a dearth of girls in university-level math, science and engineering courses, so I'm not sure what they are talking about.

As I always say, you can take education statistics to be correct, within ±50%.

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