Town Square

Math study finds girls are just as good as boys... maybe

Original post made by sue, Palo Alto High School, on Jul 25, 2008

[Janet] Hyde and her colleagues looked at annual math tests required by the No Child Left Behind education law in 2002. . . .

The researchers found no difference in the scores of boys versus girls--not even in high school. Studies 20 years ago showed girls and boys did equally well on math in elementary school, but girls fell behind in high school.

"Girls have now achieved gender parity in performance on standardized math tests," Hyde said. . . .

As Hyde and her colleagues looked across the data for states' testing, they found something they didn't expect: In most states they reviewed, and at most grade levels, there weren't any questions that involved complex problem-solving, an ability needed to succeed in high levels of science and math. . . .

That might be a glaring omission, said Stephen Camarata, a Vanderbilt University professor who has researched the issue but was not involved in the study.

"We need to know that, if our measures aren't capturing some aspect of math that's important," Camarata said. "Then we can decide whether there's an actual male or female advantage."

Math, as Charles Murray Web Link in a 2005 Commentary essay, is "the most abstract field" in the sciences, and also the one in which the achievement gap between the sexes is greatest: "The number of great female mathematicians is approximately two (Emmy Noether definitely, Sonya Kovalevskaya maybe)."

Thus, as it turns out, the findings of the study are entirely consistent with the hypothesis that boys and men tend to be better at math than their female counterparts. No child left behind--equal ignorance for all!Web Link


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Posted by Reader
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2008 at 4:56 pm

One of the tv channels news last night did a report on this. From the report it appeared that they were testing predominately Asian students. It would be interesting if this test had gone across all the demographics.

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Posted by sara n
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 25, 2008 at 5:09 pm

It appears that the methodology of this study was fatally flawed as it did not test complex math abilities at all.

I hope the researchers are punished, what a waste of money and time trying to twist reality to make a PC myth reality.

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Posted by The Girls are Coming
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2008 at 10:19 pm


If you read more carefully, you see the researchers found that state tests don't have questions involving complex problem-solving. The study did, in fact, look at complex problem-solving--they just used other data for that.

So, er, no, the study is not consistent with your "hypothesis" (hope?, faith?)

Also, the report did not focus on Asian students.

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 26, 2008 at 11:27 am

I have always considered girls to be better than boys. They even smell better.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 26, 2008 at 11:48 am

Why Walter, that was almost charming in your curmudgeonly way.

It looks like a huge study--Asian girls outscored Asian boys for some reason and there were regional variations. Interesting, too, that the discrepancy in SAT tests may reflect the fact that a larger percentage of girls take the SAT, so you're dipping deeper in the pool.

All in all, it sounded like a good study for me with a wide array of data from which to work.

Here's my question for the Readers and Sara n.s of the world, why on earth would you think there's some sort of sex-based inherent difference in mathematical abilities? Males and females are pretty similar--and the human brain is very adaptive. There's no reason why something like math would be hardwired and sex-linked.

It makes me think of mapping abilities--boys do better than girls. The difference is widest in countries where girls are heavily surpervised and housebound. It disappears in places where both girls and boys travel and are semi-nomadic. In other words, the cultural explanation is pretty clearcut--we allow our girls less freedom that way. (And there are reasons--fear of sexual predators, mostly--for that.)

Gotta say it's sort of funny to see such an *emotional* responses to something about math. Punishing the researchers? Dispute their results if you want, but *punishing* them? What a ding-a-ling reaction.

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 26, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Curmudgeonly? Moi? Toots aloures! [sic?]

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Posted by Been here before
a resident of another community
on Jul 27, 2008 at 8:00 pm


It is difficult to answer your question with the recent study. Larry Summers was kicked out because he wondered whether there *may be* differences at the extremes of the distribution. Most of the reports on this study didn't mention this, except the WSJ ( Web Link ) that observed that in the top 1% of math achievement there are still about 2 times more males than females. Further, many articles mentioned that boys and girls take demanding math courses in equal numbers. Not exactly true -- almost equal number of girls as boys take AP calculus, but in BC calculus boys still make for 60% of test takers. I have no data on the actual achievement of boys vs. girls in BC calc -- the college board does not provide them on its web site. Finally, on the real top achieving contest, the math olympiad, the US team typically has zero or one girl, out of a 6 member team.

Does this prove anything? No. But the recent study did not settle Summers contention, and we do not know if boys do have some inherent advantage at the tail of the distribution (from where the professors at top academic institutions are mostly drawn).

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 27, 2008 at 8:41 pm

Been here,

By the time you're dealing with kids in their late teens, it becomes just about impossible to filter out cultural factors. One indication of that is that there are global variations--it's not consistent.

Summers did more than just speculate--he made some fairly dopey remarks drawing from his daughter playing mommy and baby truck. One, why did he assume boys don't play parent/child games with their trucks and Two, why did he assume that a three-year-old hadn't been exposed to various social norms? It was just sloppy speculation and he ought to have known better. In some cases, what he said would have been no big deal, but as president of Harvard, those kind of comments really had no place.

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Posted by Been there before
a resident of another community
on Jul 27, 2008 at 8:57 pm


I am not sure what your comments about filtering cultural factors have to do with anything other than just throwing up meaningless words. When you have something to contribute, please do so.

As to your throwing mud on Summers, you don't surprise me. As I've indicated, I've been there before. Saw people like you.

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 28, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Been there before,

Ever spent any time around preschoolers? You'll find that around the age of three or so they become of very aware of girl v. boy and start to divide things accordingly. And they pick up what's girl v. what's boy from their friends and older siblings.

Summers used the truck anecdote as support for the idea that the sex differences were innate. My point is that even by three, kids are strongly influenced by the world around them.

I'm not throwing mud on Summers, I'm not misquoting him, I'm pointing out what was goofy about what he said. No one put a gun to his head and talk about his daughter and her trucks as anecdotal evidence of inherent gender differences.

I'm sure he has other valuable traits, but he was out to lunch on this one.

If you've Been There Before, maybe it's because those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.