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STEM Gender Gap in K-12 Evolving, Data Show

By Sarah D. Sparks.  Cross-posted from the Inside School Research blog. 

The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics may be starting to turn, according to new 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The data is coming at a time when states and districts are in a big push to get more students—and particularly girls—into STEM careers, via everything from mentorships and clubs to STEM-only schools.

By 12th grade, girls in 2009 were more likely than boys to have earned credit in advanced math and science, including Algebra II, chemistry, biology, and health sciences, though boys are significantly more likely to earn credit in computer science and engineering. 

Why then, does the data also show that girls continued to underperform in small but persistent ways across several STEM-related parts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress?

NAEP gendergaps.JPG

Notice anything odd about that chart? Male students were much more likely to earn credit in engineering classes than female students were—but the girls who did take those classes matched or outperformed their male classmates on the NAEP's math and science tests. 

The overall performance difference could reflect lower interest in STEM on the part of the female students studied. As the chart below shows, across the main racial groups, male students tended to be more likely to say they "like" science, and there was a similar gender breakdown for math.

like science.JPGAgain, I think the details are interesting here. Notice that there is a much smaller gender gap between male and female Asian-American students than students of other races. We have plenty of research finding that stereotype threats can play a big role in how comfortable students of different groups feel in a STEM classroom or career, and how likely they are to "choke" on a test even if they do well in classwork. There's even evidence suggesting the U.S. gender gap in STEM is a cultural, not biological, problem not seen in other countries. Might this be a case of choosing your stereotype? Does the stereotype of "Asian students are good at STEM" trump the one that suggests "Girls aren't as good as boys at STEM"? 

Charts: Gender gaps continue between male and female 12th graders who have taken advanced science and math coursework, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. Source: NCES 

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