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Why Do Some of the Nation's Wealthiest Districts Have the Worst Gender Gaps in Math and Reading?

It's a truism of U.S. education: Boys tend to score better than girls on math tests, and girls outperform boys in reading. But those gender gaps aren't universal. In fact, the most comprehensive study to date suggests the size and even the direction of gender gaps vary from one school district to another.

In a new study comparing gender gaps across nearly 10,000 districts nationwide, researchers from Stanford University and the Learning Policy Institute found no average gender gap in math, and a gap of nearly three-quarters of a grade level favoring girls in reading.

But the school district and community mattered far more than subject, they found. Gaps favoring boys were more common in wealthier school districts and communities where there are big gaps in income between men and women generally. In low-income communities, girls tended to outperform boys in both reading and math.

Moreover, the gaps in a given school district tended to favor on gender over the other in both subjects, rather than splitting based on stereotypes favoring boys in math and girls in reading. 

"I was a little bit surprised. ... It's a fascinating result," said Sean Reardon, a co-author of the study and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research and member of the steering committee of the university's Center for Education Policy Analysis.

The results suggest, he said, that the pressures that create achievement gaps between boys and girls may be less tied to stereotypes about specific subjects than "the kind of role models boys and girls see; how much they are encouraged to do well in school; how much parents invest in one gender or the other."

Legend stanford gender gaps.jpegThe charts below show the wide variation in achievement gaps between boys and girls (measured in standard deviation), in English/language arts, top, and math, below. Darker red signals gaps favoring girls, while darker blue denotes gaps favoring boys.ELA map stanford gender gaps.jpegMath stanford gender gaps.jpeg

Achievement Gap Differences

The researchers used data from the Stanford Educational Data Archive, a set of more than 260 million state accountability test scores from students in grades 3-8 in 12,000 districts nationwide between 2008-09 and 2014-15. The scores have been statistically matched to allow comparisons of achievement gaps across districts and states.

From 2008 to 2015, gender gaps in both math and reading have narrowed, though they are closing much faster in math than in reading. In fact, average gaps favored girls in reading in every grade and year. Boys did not outperform girls in any district in the study.

And unlike in math, those reading gaps widened over time: While girls on average outperformed boys by about a half of a grade level in 4th grade, girls performed a full year ahead of boys by 8th grade. 

"Gender does hinder children's educational opportunities," said Erin Fahle, a co-author of the study and an education policy doctoral researcher who will soon join the faculty at St. John's University in New York City.

"We as a community of researchers and practitioners really need to be aware of what's happening there, and need to think critically about it when we're designing courses or trying to create programs for boys and girls to encourage them in school."

The researchers also found that districts with higher percentages of black students were more likely to have reading and math achievement gaps favoring girls. By contrast, white students disproportionately attended districts where gaps favored boys. Interestingly, districts with large Hispanic populations were more likely to have achievement gaps favoring girls in math and boys in reading. 

"That suggests what we ought to do about [gender achievement gaps] isn't just about getting more girls into STEM classes," Reardon said.

"In the places where boys are doing better, we need to figure out how to make sure girls are getting the same opportunities and attention as boys. In places where girls are doing better, we might need to help boys identify with school and see academic achievement as a 'masculine' thing."

Map source: Erin Fahle, Stanford University


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