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Researchers Probe 'Myths' Around Math Gender Gap

Comparisons of recent international test data find no overall achievement gap between boys and girls in math, and gaps that show up in specific countries undermine the evidence for several of the hypothesized causes of a sex-based math achievement gap, according to a new analysis in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

Jonathan Kane, math and computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Janet Mertz, oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied the math scores of 4th and 8th grade students on the 2003 and 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, and the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests. The sample covered hundreds of thousands of students in dozens of countries worldwide.

The researchers found that when scores were compared across countries, there was no statistically significant achievement gap overall between mean scores of boys and girls in 4th or 8th grade in math in either 2003 or 2007.

Previous studies have suggested that boys have a higher overall variation in math performance—that is, boys are more likely than girls to be either the best or the worst in math performance. Yet Kane and Mertz did not find more variety in boys' scores overall than in girls; while boys had more varied scores in the United States, Australia and Hungary, girls had more varied distribution in Tunisia, and the Czech Republic had identical score distribution for both sexes. The researchers found significant differences in the range of scores from country to country, which they suggested may point to differences in school experiences rather than sex differences as an underlying cause of math achievement gaps.

Likewise, the researchers found no evidence that co-educational schools led to gender gaps. In an analysis of 8th-grade students from the 17 countries with 17 percent or more of students in single-sex schools, Kane and Mertz found no consistent connections between math performance gaps and what kind of school a child attended. They did, however, find that countries with better gender equity had higher math performance for boys and girls alike.

"We found that boys as well as girls tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that's both new and important," Kane said in a statement on the study. "It makes sense that when women are well educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit."

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