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Good News From PISA? U.S. Math/Science Gender Gap Closed

This post originally appeared on the Curriculum Matters blog.

There's still a mountain of PISA data to dig into (with caveats in mind, of course). But one piece I've found particularly compelling is that, in the United States, there was no statistical difference between boys' and girls' scores in either math or science. In many other countries, the 2012 OECD report notes, "marked gender differences in mathematics performance—in favour of boys—are observed." Three years ago, American boys outperformed girls in math on PISA; their science scores were similar. 

"In math and science, the United States has overcome some of the gender differences," Andreas Schleicher proclaimed at the Dec. 3 PISA Day event in Washington.

However, there are some complicating factors.

A year and a half ago, Education Week reported that, based on 2011 data from the Advanced Placement program and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the STEM gender gap was still pronounced. Erik Robelen wrote:

Take the AP program. In all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011.

The 2012 PISA also collected data on students' "engagement, drive, and self-beliefs," and a little cross-referencing shows a separate gender disparity—what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck might call a "mindset" gap. According to the report:

[E]ven when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem-solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics and more anxiety about mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

Further, if girls really are making up ground in high school math and science, as Schleicher suggests, it does not seem to be translating to the postsecondary setting. In a recent series about women and minorities in STEM, the New York Times' editorial board noted that women make up half the workforce but only a quarter of those in STEM jobs

And just yesterday Education Week's Alyssa Morones wrote that the gender gap among those pursuing computer science degrees has widened.

So what does this all add up to? As with many things PISA-related, it's hard to say with any certainty. Those who subscribe to popular theories on the importance of grit would say girls' lack of perseverance, intrinsic motivation, and belief in their ability in math and science are ultimately winning out over their performance, and causing the STEM career gender gap. The New York Times' editorial board argues that many women rule out STEM careers "partly because they are uninterested, feel ill-prepared for them or because society identifies these domains as male."

But perhaps it's best to just go with another caveat: While PISA in part aims to predict global competitiveness, you'll need to look at much more than just the performance data to really understand the landscape. It's a far leap from 15-year-olds' performance to the job market. 

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