Girls Outscore Boys on State Math Tests

By Amy Zimmer on August 18, 2014 10:18am 

 Lake Sheffield, right, jokes with others at a Black Girls Code event in December 2013. The organization is one of several in the city focused on improving girls' science and math skills.
Lake Sheffield, right, jokes with others at a Black Girls Code event in December 2013. The organization is one of several in the city focused on improving girls' science and math skills.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

MANHATTAN — Girls in New York City outperformed boys on the state's standardized math tests this year, widening the gap between the genders when it comes to math, new statistics show. 

More than 35 percent of the city's third-through-eighth-grade girls passed the state math test, up from 30 percent last year which was the first year of the harder tests aligned to federal Common Core standards. For boys, 33.4 percent passed this year's test, up from last year's 29.3 percent.

It's too soon to know why girls' math scores are rising faster than boys', but some experts wonder if all of the focus and funding going to boosting girls' performance in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is paying off.

"My gut feeling is that all of the attention that has been given to STEM and getting girls involved in the STEM areas really has impacted these results," said Deborah Shanley, professor at Brooklyn College.

Over the past several years, the National Science Foundation and other organizations have given a lot more funding for K through 12 programs directed at girls, Shanely noted. Groups like Black Girls Code run programs to spark girls' interest in math and computer science.

There has been a cultural shift, too, with commercials like the General Electric one that features a girl talking about how her mom builds underwater fans and airplane engines.

"Putting women in those roles and having girls talk about 'that's my mother that developed that engine' — a lot of it is PR," she said. "But I'm hoping [it seeps into] instruction for girls."

Girls' math scores were better than boys' in all grades from third through eighth and across all ethnic groups, according to city and state data. But it remains to be seen whether the gains will be sustained in high school and beyond.

There are still big gaps between boys' and girls' SAT math scores, with boys scoring 30 points better on recent SATs. And there's still a dearth of women in math and science-related fields, advocates said.

"There is no intrinsic difference in math ability in girls and boys and, in fact, there’s evidence that girls are more attentive and diligent students," Glen Whitney, founder of Flatiron's Museum of Math which is highlighting the accomplishments of women in the field with in an informal lunch discussion featuring three female mathematicians on Sept. 6 called "Solve for XX: A Celebration of Women in Mathematics."

"Methods of assessment," Whitney said, have gradually "let go of their gender biases," which has helped turn the tide for girls' math scores.

"As parents, teachers and mentors we must make sure we don’t introduce a bias that might be based on old misconceptions," he added.

Elementary and middle school girls in New York City have been performing better on English tests than boys for many years and the data shows they've been doing better on math for several years too, raising questions about whether schools are now doing enough to reach boys, some said.

"Girls have the social skills at an earlier age to do well, like sitting still and listening to instruction," said NYU education professor Pedro Noguera. "Boys especially — and all kids — benefit from more hands-on learning, more active learning."

The challenge now, Noguera said, is to use the results of the standardized test scores to think about effective teaching for all students.

"We should be using the scores to guide our interventions and professional development for teachers," he said. "We need again to focus on what kind of instructional strategies would engage kids."

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