Gender imbalance in math scores disappears

If you believe that girls fare significantly worse on math than boys in high-school tests, you would have been right — twenty years ago.  Thanks to a concerted effort by parents and schools to get more girls in advanced math classes, the test-score disparity has completely disappeared, according to the National Science Foundation:

Although boys in high school performed better than girls in math 20 years ago, the researchers found, that is no longer the case. The reason, they said, is simple: Girls used to take fewer advanced math courses than boys, but now they are taking just as many.

“Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” said Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, a co-author of the study. “But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.”

The findings, reported in the July 25 issue of Science magazine, are based on math scores from seven million students in 10 states, tested in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys.

The gap still occurs in the SATs, but researchers believe that has to do with sampling rather than an actual gender difference.  More girls take the SATs than do boys, and the wider sample skews the results.  A similar gap in ACT scores vanished in Colorado and Illinois when the states began requiring all students to take the tests.

For those of us with daughters and granddaughters, this comes as good news.  It also shows the power of parents in correcting educational imbalances without the heavy hand of government mandates.   Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on the suggestion of expanding Title IX from sports to science, even though the two have nothing in common in terms of gender separation:

Until recently, the impact of Title IX, the law forbidding sexual discrimination in education, has been limited mostly to sports. But now, under pressure from Congress, some federal agencies have quietly picked a new target: science.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy have set up programs to look for sexual discrimination at universities receiving federal grants. Investigators have been taking inventories of lab space and interviewing faculty members and students in physics and engineering departments at schools like Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, M.I.T. and the University of Maryland.

So far, these Title IX compliance reviews haven’t had much visible impact on campuses beyond inspiring a few complaints from faculty members. (The journal Science quoted Amber Miller, a physicist at Columbia, as calling her interview “a complete waste of time.”) But some critics fear that the process could lead to a quota system that could seriously hurt scientific research and do more harm than good for women.

I wanted to comment on this when it appeared two weeks ago, but today’s report on math scores makes this a better moment. Concerned parents getting involved solved the problem within the compulsory education system. In college, the choice of major is voluntary, as it should be.  Unlike sports, the sciences do not field men’s and women’s teams with funding disparities.  Any student with the proficiency necessary can gain admission regardless of gender.

Congress wants to set up quota systems that would wind up excluding qualified students in favor of those who don’t want to pursue the study, or who are less prepared to succeed at it, and only to satisfy an urge for political correctness.  Furthermore, while 20 years ago a case could be made that compulsory education left girls handicapped in their pursuit of the sciences, those conditions no longer exist today.  Girls and boys have equal preparation for these choices, and they have no restrictions on making them once they get to college.

Instead of focusing on bean-counting at the college level, Congress might want to look at some of the math curricula floating through public and private schools.   Everyday Mathematics, for instance, is a complete disaster that retards the math education of both boys and girls across the nation.  Educators and parents alike object to its imposition.  If Congress thinks math education is within their jurisdiction — which I don’t — they can start by removing unnecessary impediments like Everyday Mathematics rather than worrying about establishing unnecessary quota systems.