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In Kindergarten, There Is No STEM Gender Gap

Kindergarten girls scored just as well as boys on a large national test of science skills, according to the latest in a growing body of research about achievement gaps. But by 1st grade, boys are already starting to pull ahead. 

And while gaps between racial and ethnic groups' scores are already present in kindergarten, some groups of students seem to benefit from more time in school, while other groups' scores stagnate over time.

In "Understanding Science Achievement Gaps by Race/Ethnicity and Gender in Kindergarten and First Grade," published this summer in Educational Researcher, F. Chris Curran, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Ann T. Kellogg, a graduate student at the same school, analyze information from the National Center for Education Statistics' Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, or ECLS. The ECLS tracked the progress of more than 18,000 students who started kindergarten in 2010. Science tests were administered in the spring of each school year.

The research highlights sometimes-unexpected trajectories of racial, ethnic, and gender groups' scores as students moved from kindergarten to 1st grade. For instance, kindergarten girls scored as well as boys, but boys start to pull ahead by 1st grade. Both Asian students' and Hispanic students' scores drew closer to those of their white peers by 1st grade, while the gap between white and black students remained about constant. 

Curran said that the ECLS offers a closer look at science in the early grades than had previously been available: An earlier version of the ECLS that tracked a cohort of students born in 1998 had lumped science in with several other subjects for the youngest students, while the newer version had a standalone science test. 

At a time when there is much interest in promoting greater racial and gender diversity in STEM professions and academic fields, Curran said that looking at trends in the earliest years of schools could prove illuminating. "These trajectories get set early in students' academic careers," he said. 

The earlier version also tracked a group of students who entered school before the No Child Left Behind Act, which focused on narrowing achievement gaps in math and reading, took effect.

"There's so much policy attention to achievement gaps, but primarily that's been about mathematics and reading," Curran said. "Science has gotten overlooked."

Gaps and Trends

Curran and Kellogg examined trends in the scores of some 10,000 students for whom there was data about socioeconomic status, math and reading scores, and more in both kindergarten and 1st grade. 

The test questions weren't released, but they covered content knowledge—think fossils and volcanos—and scientific inquiry. Since the students were so young, the test was given verbally so as not to conflate reading ability and content knowledge.

In kindergarten, the achievement gap between male and female children was statistically insignificant. By 1st grade, male students scored higher than their female peers, though the difference is still small. Studies based on the earlier version of the ECLS found that by 3rd grade, female students were significantly behind male students. 

"That tells us that when kids come into formal schooling, the gender gap just isn't present," Curran said. 

White students came into kindergarten with the highest scores on the science tests, followed by Asian students and black students. Hispanic students had the lowest scores. But by 1st grade, Hispanic and Asian students' scores drew closer to those of their white peers, and black students' were the lowest overall. Curran hypothesizes that a change in some students' English-language skills might partly explain that change.

Gaps in science scores between Hispanic and black students and their white peers tended to be larger than in reading and math, and trends in performance in reading and math over time did not exactly correlate to trends in science. For instance, while Asian students as a whole scored higher than white students on math and reading tests in kindergarten, they scored below their white peers on the science test. By 1st grade, they were still behind their white peers, but the gap had significantly reduced. 

Curran said that achievement gaps between different groups of students are "a reflection of a problem in our country, when it comes to what we stand for in terms of equal opportunity and equity." He said that while there's been attention to the issue within the education community, "it always bears repeating that those disparities exist."

In the paper, Curran and Kellogg call for more exploration of the science experiences of young children. Curran said he and his colleagues plan to examine the causes of gaps, including the effect of preschool on science scores, in future studies.


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