Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

‘Boys overtake girls in maths for the first time in 12 years’


It happened in Britain, as you can tell from the -s at the end of “maths.” I don’t understand all the British edspeak, but the gist of the article seems to be that boys are outperforming girls in mathematics now that the evaluation is based strictly on test scores instead of including coursework, as was done in the past. Even so, the difference is small: “The figures showed 57.6 per cent of boys were awarded A* to C grades in maths, compared with 56.8 per cent of girls.”


For what it’s worth, in America, boys have consistently outperformed girls on the math SAT by more than 30 points — a good-sized margin — for the last several decades. I’m not sure what accounts for the trans-Atlantic gap, though it sounds like the British test is one that all secondary-school students take, while in America, only those who plan to go to college take the SAT. Since more girls than boys go to college, there are probably more marginally qualified girls than boys in the SAT testing pool, and this self-selection could account for the American-British difference.


To me, the British result sounds like it could be spun either way. A feminist would say: Girls are just as good as boys at math(s), give or take a percentage point; so with no inherent difference in ability, our sexist society must be to blame for the lack of women in technical fields. While a conservative would say: Girls perform just as well as boys in math(s) courses, so our schools are doing their job; if women decide not to enter those fields, it’s their own choice.


(By the way, the blogger in my second link above disagrees with the self-selection hypothesis on SAT scores. Since 1975, he writes, as the testing pool has shifted from 50-50 to 53.6 percent female, the score gap has decreased from 46 to 33 points. If self-selection brought more math-phobic girls into the pool, you would expect the opposite. I see it differently: If you look at his graphs, since 1995, the composition of the testing pool and the gender gap in scores have both held nearly constant. As with many statistics, you can “prove” different things by examining different time periods.)


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