Friday, July 25, 2008

Breaking News: Girls do just as well as boys at math

OK, so to readers of this blog, it's probably not that shocking, but a study published in today's issue of Science1 shows that girls do just as well on standardized math tests as boys. The study was lead by University of Wisconsin psychology professor Janet Hyde, and is a follow-up to a similar study she published almost 20 years ago2. That original study found that girls and boys performed equally well on math tests through middle school, with boys outperforming girls starting in high school. In the current study she shows that there is no longer any gender difference in test scores through grade 11.

But what about the best of the best? Could it be that men dominate in mathematically-based fields because there are more male math "geniuses"? Hyde did find that when you look at the 99th percentile test scores "white boys outnumbered white girls by about two to one." Aha! That means that women will never make up more than 33% of the engineers and physicists3, right? Setting aside the assumption that there is necessarily a correlation between being in the top 1% of math test takers and success as a physical scientist, what Hyde found was that the difference doesn't even hold true for all girls and boys. When test scores for students with Asian ancestry were compared, girls outnumbered boys in the 99th percentile. The results are consistent with the difference being due to cultural factors, rather than innate difference in ability.

OK, but what about college-prep level mathematics? Boys do outscore girls on the math portion of the SAT. As the Science Now article summarizes:

Another portion of the study did confirm that boys still tend to outscore girls on the mathematics section of the SAT test taken by 1.5 million students interested in attending college. In 2007, for instance, boys' scores were about 7% higher on average than girls'. But Hyde's team argues that the gap is a statistical illusion, created by the fact that more girls take the test. "You're dipping farther down into the distribution of female talent, which brings down the score," Hyde says. It's not clear that statisticians at the College Board, which produces the SAT, will agree with that explanation. But Hyde says it's good news, because it means the test isn't biased against girls.
Even if the 7% difference in average SAT test scores does accurately reflect an innate difference mathematical ability, it certainly isn't sufficient to explain the gender gap in physics and engineering.

There's a bit of discussion of the story at the Chronicle of higher education Wired Campus blog, where the comments seem to alternate between "duh, everybody knows this" and "the results don't reflect true mathematical genius"-style arguments. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a roundup of links of coverage in the mainstream media.

Related post: How different are the brains of women and men? Not much.

(Thanks to Abi at nanopolitan for sending me the link to the original Science paper)

1. Hyde JS et al. "Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance" Science 321 (5888): 494-495 (2008). DOI: 10.1126/science.1160364
2. Hyde JS et al "Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis." Psycho. Bull. 107(2): 139-155 (1990)
3. That certainly doesn't explain why only 15% of the physics PhDs and 18% of the engineering PhDs go to women. Interestingly, women earn 27% of the mathematics and statistics PhDs.

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LeCinQBlog said...

I am glad .Wish, more such studies are done to undo the myths that have been created by earlier studies.

Anonymous said...

Just FYI - there's a whole discussion going on about this on the Freakonomics blog:

Marginal Revolution on the Male/Female Math Gap

Peggy K said...

le cinq blog: I suspect more such studies are underway. It may be a bit discouraging to people who conduct the studies when they get negative reactions to their hard work.

abby: Thanks for the link!