Underrating girls’ math skills creates gender gap, says study

Data from the study's kindergarten class of 1998-1999 showed that boys and girls began kindergarten with similar math proficiency, but disparities developed by grade 3 with girls falling behind

By: PTI | Washington | Updated: October 28, 2016 6:08 pm

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Teachers tend to give lower ratings to girls’ math skills even when their achievement and behaviour is similar to that of boys, likely contributing to the growth in the gender gap in math, a new US study has found.

Beginning in early elementary school, boys outperform girls in math – especially among the highest achievers – continuing a troubling pattern found in the late 1990s, researchers said.

“Despite changes in the educational landscape, our findings suggest that the gender gaps observed among children who entered kindergarten in 2010 are strikingly similar to what we saw in children who entered kindergarten in 1998,” said Joseph Robinson Cimpian, associate professor at New York University.

The study tracked developmental and educational outcomes of children in the US over time.

Data from the study’s kindergarten class of 1998-1999 showed that boys and girls began kindergarten with similar math proficiency, but disparities developed by grade 3 with girls falling behind.

The gap was particularly large among the highest math achievers, researchers found. “The gender gap at the top of the math achievement distribution deserves special attention, as this is where future mathematicians, computer scientists, and other STEM professionals tend to reside – professions in which women remain underrepresented,” Cimpian said.

Researchers also found disparities in teacher perceptions of students, with teachers rating the math skills of girls lower than those of similarly behaving and performing boys.

They compared two cohorts: the kindergarten class of 1998-1999 and the kindergarten class of 2010-2011.

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More than 5,000 students (kindergarten, grades 1 and 3) were included in the analysis of the 1998-1999 cohort and more than 7,500 students (kindergarten, grades 1 and 2) were included from the 2010-2011 cohort.

Researchers observed that the gender gap at the top of the distribution (among the highest achievers in math) develops before students enter kindergarten, worsens through elementary school, and has not improved over the last decade.

In both the 1998-1999 and 2010-2011 datasets, girls represented less than one-third of students above the 99th percentile as early as the spring of kindergarten.

As girls grew, so did the gap, with girls making up only one-fifth of those above the 99th percentile by grade 3 in the older cohort and grade 2 in the newer cohort. When boys and girls behaved and academically performed similarly, teachers in both cohorts underrated the math skills of girls as early as grade 1.

This suggests that teachers must perceive girls as working harder than similarly achieving boys in order to rate them as equally proficient in math. The study was published in the journal AERA Open.

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