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Mind the High School Gender Gap

By Jessica Kelmon 

If you’ve come to worry endlessly about the fate of boys in school, well, you’re not alone.

According to recent tomes with titles like The Trouble with Boys (2008) and Why Boys Fail (2010), boys are falling precipitously behind girls in school. Research shows that boys earn lower grades than girls and significantly more girls than boys go to college. To explain these differences, experts point out that school reading isn’t tailored to boys’ interests and that boys’ slower maturation rate gives girls an early academic advantage. With these facts circling like sharks, you may’ve felt your attention hyper focused on boys. But test scores reveal a gender gap — and in this case, it’s girls who need to catch up.

Test score gender gap

A close look at recent standardized test scores in California show that boys are far outpacing girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. Standardized test results are all about proficiency: like a pass/fail construct, the results are reported in terms of how many kids reached proficiency — or didn’t. In California, there are 31 subject-based standardized tests for high schoolers. While not all kids are taking all tests, the numbers show a clear pattern: boys are scoring proficient at significantly higher rates than girls. In fact, there are significant gaps in 14 of the 31 test scores — and boys are testing higher in 10 of them.

Among California’s ninth graders, for example, there’s a 12 point proficiency-rate spread between boys and girls in Earth science (43 vs. 31), a six point spread in physics (41 vs. 35), and a lesser but still present three-point gap in geometry (46 vs. 43). In 10th grade, the gaps in Earth science (40 vs. 29) and geometry (16 vs. 13) persist, and they’re joined by a gap in chemistry (52 vs. 42). By junior year, the pattern is set and boys outscore girls in Earth science (43 vs. 31), physics (64 vs. 51), and chemistry (37 vs. 27).

Where girls are testing well

The only area where girls have a clear edge over boys is English language arts. Tied to reading prowess (and often, specifically, reading fiction and literature), it’s a subject area where girls have traditionally done well. Notably, however, it’s not a STEM field.

The two STEM subjects where girls seems to be holding their own? Algebra and biology. Girls’ proficiency scores in bio are within a point or two of boys’ in ninth and 10th grades — and by junior year girls taking bio are outpacing their male peers by six percentage points. It’s the only science subject where that’s true. In California, biology is typically a ninth grade subject (and sometimes 10th), so the bio numbers here likely reflect the ironic truth that, while the gender gap persists, girls tend to take more advanced and AP classes overall — especially in subjects where they tend to be doing better, like bio.

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