This story was updated on August 8, 2008.
The perpetuated belief that says girls are worse than boys at mathematics is unfounded, a team of researchers at University of Wisconsin at Madison and University of California at Berkeley reports today in the journal Science. This conclusion challenges the frequently cited argument that says that poorer female math performance is the reason behind the shortage of women in physics and engineering careers.
The researchers examined extensive performance assessments of more than 7 million students, carried out by 10 states as required by the No Child Left Behind legislation. They found that, in standardized tests, the differences between the average math scores of boys and girls in grades 2-11 were zero.
It is also commonly said that boys are overrepresented at both ends of math performance; they are more frequently the best and the worst achievers than girls. The researchers found there’s more variability in the boys’ math scores; but this variance was not large.
When the research team studied if there were gender discrepancies at the highest levels of mathematical performance, they got different results depending on if the kids were white or Asian American. In Minnesota, 11-grader white boys hit the 99th percentile more than twice more than white girls in the same grade. But for Asian American students, the pattern got reversed.
“It might be the different cultures’ emphasis on Math,” says Janet S. Hyde, leader of the study. Her group has two ongoing studies analyzing data on the math performance of American children and youth in other nations.
Finally, the researchers took a look at SAT results. Males usually perform better than females at this test, but the researchers attributed this conclusion to poorly done statistics. The sample group is not random: only students who are applying to college take the SAT, and the two groups are different in size—more girls take this test than boys—so they can’t be compared fairly.
This week a coalition of engineering organizations launched Engineer Your Life, a national campaign to inform women about opportunities in engineering careers. —Maria José Viñas