Are US Boys Really Smarter Than Girls In Science? International Testing Provides Some Answers About Educational Gender Gaps

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A nine-point difference on a test where the average score is 500 might not seem like much, but if you’re concerned about the gender gap between boys and girls in science performance, you might see it as a call to action.

The Programme for International Student Assessment is a test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and given every three years to a sampling of 15-year-olds across the world. The first PISA, given in 2000, focused on reading; 2003’s focus was math, while 2006’s focus was science -- although questions in all three subject areas are given each time. When the results from 2009 came out, the OECD was able to get a thorough look at how reading scores changed over time.

The value of the PISA test is manifold, according to Francesca Borgonovi, a PISA analyst for the OECD.

A country may want to see “how well its education system is responding to innovations; they may want to learn from best practices elsewhere,” Borgonovi says. Globalization means that “if you are trying to understand what others are doing, unless you’re doing that in an international context, you’re missing a piece of the puzzle.”

Now that PISA is entering its second wave of repetition, education experts are eagerly awaiting the full results from 2012, which will be available in December 2013. Seeing how math, science, and reading scores have changed in nine years could affect the thrust of education programs across the U.S. and around the world.

The test is also being used to gauge the state of the gender gap in education.

This month, the New York Times highlighted the science results from the 2009 test, in a graphic broken down by gender. The scores showed that 15-year-old girls outperformed boys on the science exam in more than one-half of the countries that took the test. But the converse was seen in many Western European nations, as well as the U.S.

However, Borgonovi says, “If you look closely at the graph, the gap [between U.S. boys and U.S. girls] is really tiny -- something like 2 percent. The scale is a big magnifying effect.”

Still, the Times article touched off yet another round in the perennial debate over how the U.S. can raise its science scores in general, and among girls in particular.

While there are lots of programs being promoted to encourage girls to pursue science, “they’re clearly not working as well as we’d like them to,” says Mike Padilla, former president of the National Science Teachers Association, or NSTA.

PISA scores imply that the secret to better education may lie in some deeper cultural wellspring.

“Very successful countries do share common features,” Borgonovi says. “Investments in teachers in terms of training, but also the culture of valuing teachers in these countries is incredible.”

Finland, where girls scored an average of 14 points higher on the 2009 PISA science section than boys, has been the darling of many a recent education think piece thanks to its stellar international performance, as in this one appearing in Smithsonian magazine. Typically, the success of the Scandinavian country has been largely attributed to the high value that it places on teachers. Teachers have to go through a three-year master’s program before landing a position, and they are held in the same esteem as doctors or lawyers.

Others, like the Atlantic, point to a Finnish culture that prizes equality over competition, and a strong social-security net that ensures children do not slip through poverty’s cracks. At least one study cited by the same publication argues that America’s seemingly bad performance among PISA countries is more the result of income inequality than of a poor education system, and that American students are actually closing the gap in math.

There are also subtle changes that Finland’s schools have enacted to encourage girls in the science classroom, according to Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.

“We have systematically removed all gender-biased elements from textbooks and curricula so that science would be equally interesting and relevant to girls,” Sahlberg writes via email. “We have also found that the more science is based on experimental approach, the more it attracts girls.”

The Finnish program is also aimed at pushing students to become familiar with the practice of science -- experimentation -- and not just reeling off scientific facts, Sahlberg notes.

The Scandinavian nation’s educational renaissance is remarkable for its stark philosophical contrast to the school systems in other top-performing countries such as South Korea and China. While education in many Asian countries is typically characterized by authoritarianism and hours of cram school -- as a student, “you put in a 12-hour day,” NSTA's Padilla says -- Finnish schoolrooms tend to emphasize exploration and creative thinking, and eschew the treadmill of yearly standardized tests that’s common in U.S. classrooms.

Yet the picture painted by test scores is never a simple one: Boys have their own problems, it turns out. While PISA analyses have found that countries with higher levels of gender equality have narrower gaps between boys’ and girls’ scores in math, they also have even bigger divides between boys and girls in reading, where girls tend to excel handily.

The average gap between girls and boys in PISA reading scores is 39 points, whereas in Finland, it’s 59 points, the OECD's Borgonovi points out.

Other features of the test reveal subtle gender disparities. PISA tests often feature additional questions about how much students like studying certain things. It turns out that subject-based perception and anxiety seem to be prophetic.

“Girls tend to be more anxious about mathematics, while boys tend to enjoy reading less,” Borgonovi says. “Expectations tend to follow performance -- though it’s not a one-to-one relationship.”

For girls, there’s another wrinkle -- they’re much less likely to expect to pursue science or engineering careers, even if they are high-performing science students. During the 2006 PISA exam, the test asked students what they expected to be doing around age 30.

The OECD's results show clearly gendered expectations. Only 5 percent of girls taking the PISA test, on average, expected to get jobs in engineering and computing, compared with 18 percent of boys. This was true even among girls who scored particularly well in science and math.

Plus, there’s the question of whether 15-year-olds who are scoring well on science tests will pursue research when they grow up.

Yong Zhao, an education expert from the University of Oregon, says that test scores are not a good predictor of career paths in science. He points to data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study that show a negative correlation between countries with high scores on PISA science portions and interest in science.

“In Asian countries, students have higher scores in math and science but interest is low,” Zhao says. The pressure and work required to achieve high test scores "may have sacrificed students’ confidence.”

Padilla says he’s also seen the consequences of the pressure-cooker mentality through his work with Japanese undergraduates. Many students are burned out on science by the time they get to college.

“They do well up to grade 12, they do great on tests -- then they drink beer for four years,” Padilla says.

Will the next generation of education reform make American students better scientists, or better standardized test-takers? Zhao -- and many others -- don’t want testing to overtake learning.

“We should make science interesting to our children and allow more exploration,” Zhao says. “Right now, we try to prescribe as if everyone wants to learn the same thing.”

America, for all its flaws, is still a land where second-chance stories are abundant, Zhao says. He points to Adam Steltzner, the NASA engineer who helped build the sky-crane system that lowered the Mars rover Curiosity to the Red Planet’s surface last year. Steltzner struggled in high school and spent early adulthood playing instruments in a series of new-wave bands. After briefly studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music, Steltzner became interested in astronomy and devoted himself wholeheartedly to science.

And now, after acquiring a couple of postgraduate degrees, the former rocker has helped land a robot on Mars.

“Only in America could you do that,” Zhao says.

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