Go figure: girls are doing better in math

AMANDA CUDA Staff writer, Connecticut Post

Article Last Updated: 07/28/2008 12:23:47 PM EDT

Growing up, Elizabeth Steeves had no qualms about math.

As a kid, it never would have occurred to her that boys were supposed to be better at math than girls. After all, her mother was an engineering technician and used math all the time. "I had a role model of a woman who could do math," said Steeves, now an associate professor of chemistry at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

When she got older, she learned that not everyone was so lucky. Math is a big part of chemistry, Steeves said, and she still sees many female students who have hang-ups about their aptitude for arithmetic.

More than the males, they tend to believe that they're bad at math - so much so that Steeves has had to retrain them. "I get them to say 'I used to be bad at math and I'm not anymore,'" she said.

The women in her class have no doubt been influenced by the stereotype that women aren't as good at math as the guys are. That's a mindset that's been reinforced over the years by the relative lack of women at the highest level of math, science and engineering fields.

But a new study turns that stereotype on its ear - and provides hope that Steeves's future female students will be a bit more confident around numbers.

According to the study, published in the journal Science, male and female students in grades 2 through 11 perform roughly the same on standardized math tests. Researchers, led by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, came to that

conclusion after analyzing the scores of 7.2 million students in 10 states - including Connecticut - on standardized math tests administered between 2005 and 2007 as part of the No Child Left Behind initiative.

They found that neither gender consistently performed better than the other at any grade level, from grade school to high school, or in any state. This contrasts with a 1990 study, also led by Hyde, that showed boys and girls did equally well on math tests in grade school, but that, once high school rolled around, boys scored significantly higher than girls did on tests requiring complex problem solving.

Connecticut Department of Education Spokesman Tom Murphy backed up the idea that girls in the state are doing as well as the boys on math tests, though, he said, he still sees a slight gap on the high school level.

For instance, on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, a standardized test given to the state's 10th graders, 78.7 percent of girls scored at or above the proficiency level, compared with 80.6 percent of boys.

But that gap is relatively small, Murphy said. "About 10 years ago, it was a stark contrast," he said. "Boys were performing better than girls by double digits."

He also said he expects the difference to be completely eliminated in a few years. "This is just the tail end of the gap closing," Murphy said.

The past gap was partly attributable to negative stereotypes about girls and math, Murphy said. "There was a bias over the years that has not been intentional," he said. "Teachers, parents - even the students themselves - make assumptions that boys are better at math than girls."

In recent years, educators and others have taken steps to increase girls' confidence in math, science and technology. For instance, Housatonic holds an annual Girls and Technology Expo for seventh grade girls. The program, which Steeves has worked on several times, features various workshops on technology-related fields, including web design and forensics.

The goal is to get girls excited about careers requiring math and science skills.

Given the expansion of programs like this, Steeves said it's not surprising that girls are more confident and achieving better. "I think it's wonderful," she said.

Jill Shahverdian, assistant professor of math at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, also finds the data positive, if not surprising.

There are many possible reasons that girls are achieving better, Shahverdian said. For example, on the high school level, more girls are taking advanced math classes, which might help them score better on standardized tests, she said.

Whatever the reason, she said she hopes the study will break down stereotypes people have about girls and numbers.

"I think it's promising, if for no other reason than it makes people think 'Oh! Maybe boys aren't better at math than girls," Shahverdian said.