New Study Suggests That Teachers Underestimate the Math Ability of Girls

Although a 2008 study found no gender difference between math students on state exams, a new study suggests teachers perceive the math ability of boys to be higher than that of girls even when the children’s abilities are comparable. Major findings from the study published in AERA Open in October 2016 include:

  • No gender gap when most students start kindergarten
  • The subsequent gap starts even earlier for high-achieving students
  • Teachers generally underrate the skill of their female students

Most disturbingly, the teachers tended to underrate the math skills of girls from 1st grade on even when both male and female students had the same levels of math achievement and similar behavioral ratings. (The researchers rated behavioral traits such as persistence and self-direction as well as behavioral problems.)

With the exception of kindergarten students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, the male and female students started out about equal in kindergarten. However, the gender gap grew by 1st grade and continued expanding through 2nd grade.

The gap starts even earlier for high-achieving students. When rated above the 50th percentile in cognitive assessment, girls accounted for more than 50% of the kindergarten students. However, only 33% of the girls rated above the 99th percentile. By the spring of 2nd grade, male students performed better above the 15th percentile.

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Researchers wondered what the source of the discrepancy was between the results from the 2008 study and that from the 2016 one. One possibility is that the reliance on standardized tests did not effectively measure higher order math skills where there was more likely to be a gap. Another possibility is that schools may have relaxed their efforts to ensure gender equity if they thought that there was no longer a problem.

This research has major implications for the future of STEM education and jobs in the US. Fifteen-year old girls have been found to suffer math anxiety at much higher levels than boys of this age.

Girls who end up discouraged in math may be dissuaded from pursuing STEM careers. This would only add to the shortage of Americans needed in these fields to maintain the country’s science and research base that has enabled the US to be one of the world’s most successful countries.