June 19 2012
Vicki E. Alger
Title IX proponents such as the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE) admit women earn nearly or more than half the bachelor’s or postgraduate degrees in biology, psychology, and chemistry. (p. 19) Still, gender bias, they say, explains why the same isn’t true for engineering and computer science. (p. 18) A recent Education Week article perpetuates this kind of thinking:
… Advanced Placement data show representation of the sexes to be about the same—or even higher for girls—in certain courses, but some show striking gender contrasts. For the class of 2011, boys dominated the computer-science course, representing 80 percent of test-takers, as well as the three AP physics courses. …Also, 59 percent of those taking Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP courses offered in the subject, were male.
College-bound high-school students who take the College Board’s AP exams and pass can receive college credit. What the article doesn’t say is how few high school students nationwide even took those named AP subject exams to begin with—and it leaves out those “certain” math and science course exams taken by far more students where the gender gap is non-existent or flipped.
AP Subject Exam: # Students Taking Exam %Girls %Boys % Students Passing
Calculus BC [more advanced] 64,997 41% 59% 80%
Computer Science A 16,772 20% 80% 62%
Computer Science AB 641 14% 86% 86%
Physics B 58,460 35% 65% 58%
and Magnetism 11,075 23% 77% 70%
Physics C: Mechanics 26.679 26% 74% 71%
Biology 144,984 59% 41% 48%
Calculus AB 202,725 49% 51% 54%
Environmental Science 79,378 56% 44% 48%
Psychology 163,284 63% 37% 66%
Statistics 120,128 52% 48% 57%
*Author’s percentages based on College Board AP data.
Such results bode well for the less than one percent of high school students who took and passed those exams. These students likely have a keen interest in math and science as well as strong native ability. But what about the remaining 14.8 million American high school students?
The College Board notes that American students rank 23rd in science proficiency and 31st in math proficiency among 65 countries. (p. 11; See also here, here, and here.) Gender discrimination doesn’t explain such performance. (See more math results here; and science results here)—especially since the proportion of women public elementary and secondary-school teachers has remained virtually constant at 70 percent since 1961. Fully 57 percent of math teachers and 54 percent of natural science teachers are women. Moreover, 95 percent of math teachers and 90 percent of natural science teachers have a bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and the majority of those teachers hold degrees in their fields, 67 percent of math teachers and 84 percent of natural science teachers.
Title IX advocates aren’t crying foul at the comparative scarcity of men in K-12 classrooms or STEM courses; nor are they highlighting the dismal K-12 math and science performance of both girls and boys—a leading reason why President Obama launched yet another government program, the Educate to Innovate campaign.
Currently, less than one-third of 8th grade public-school girls (27 percent) and boys (32 percent) is proficient in science, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also know as the Nation’s Report Card. In math, only around one-quarter of 8th grade girls and boys (26 percent each) is proficient.
A longer-range view paints an even more disturbing picture. NAEP has regularly assessed a nationally representative sample of American school children in mathematics and reading since the 1970s. Regular assessments in other core subjects have only recently been required, so long-term trend data are not available. In science, for example, data are available for 2009 only. Those results show that in grade 4, boys scored a single NAEP scale-score higher than girls; however, in grade 12 boys scored a six points higher than girls.
More than two decades of math performance data show a disturbing trend of girls starting out on par with boys then lagging behind them in high school. From 1978 through 2008, overall there is no median difference in math scores between boys and girls at age 9; however, the performance gap has varied from girls outperforming boys by as much as 4 NAEP scale-score points in 1982, to boys outperforming girls by as many points in 1996. Yet over this same 20-year period, 17-year-old boys have consistently outperformed girls in math with a median 4 scale-score point advantage, varying from as many as 7 points in 1978 to just 3 points in various years.
Rather than blame discrimination, policymakers should focus on ensuring schools maintain high quality math and science curricula--and empowering parents to send their children to schools that do. They should also ensure that schools of education provide teaching candidates with rigorous training in core mathematics and science subjects, and that those candidates pass subject-specific skills, pedagogy, and demonstration assessments before ever entering the classroom. “Many of our schools of education are mediocre at best,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “While high-performing nations almost universally have a high bar to entry—rejecting as many as nine in ten applicants who want to teach in their countries—here in the U.S. we basically allow anyone to teach, and often train and support them poorly.”