Are boys better at math than girls?

What does the nation’s report card say about gender differences in math performance?

Who is better at math, boys or girls?

Stereotypes about math and science suggest the answer is boys. Popular shows featuring STEM themes like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley feature mostly male casts. Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson are frequently cited pop culture scientists. You may have seen movies or shows about John Nash, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, or Stephen Hawking, all men who excelled in STEM fields. It takes a while to reverse ideas embedded into a culture. But last year, the movie Hidden Figures, which told the true story of 3 women who worked at NASA — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — grossed $230 million. Children’s books like Andrea Beatty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist are a hit with boys and girls alike.

The graph below shows a comparison between male and female students tested in math in 4th and 8th grades.

Proficiency Defined

The numbers in the graph indicate students who performed at a “proficient” level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math exams given in 2015, comparing male and female students’ performance in 4th and in 8th grade. NAEP exam results show students who are performing at a “basic” as well as at a “proficient” level. Students who fully understand the material are expected to perform at a proficient level. The NAEP defines proficiency as, “solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

See below for examples of questions students were asked on the 4th and 8th grade exams. For more sample questions, click here. Find the answers to the questions at the bottom of this article.

4th grade math

Question 1

Kim, Les, Mario, and Nina each had a string 10 feet long.

  • Kim cut hers into fifths.
  • Les cut his into fourths.
  • Mario cut his into sixths.
  • Nina cut hers into thirds.

After the cuts were made, who had the longest pieces of string?

A. Kim

B. Les

C. Mario

D. Nina

 

Question 2

A teacher drew this rectangle on the ground. Sam walked around the rectangle on the lines shown. How far did Sam walk?

A. 14 feet

B. 20 feet

C. 28 feet

D. 48 feet

8th grade math

Question 3

The ratio of boys to girls to adults at a school party was 6 : 5 : 2. There were 78 people at the party. How many of them were adults?

A. 6

B. 12

C. 18

D. 30

E. 36

Question 4

Points A and B are on a number line. The coordinate of point B is 3 and the coordinate of the midpoint of the segment AB is -5. What is the coordinate of point A?

A. -13

B. -2

C. -1

D. 8

E. 11

In 4th grade, female students show test scores lower than male students in every state except Vermont. When tested, 42% of male students and 38% of female students were considered proficient in math.

What is the reason for these differences?

Self-perception and confidence are likely to have an effect on how female students perform compared to male students. Stereotypically, girls are not as interested or as skilled in math as boys are. The idea appears to persist regardless of age, from elementary school to adulthood. Women are underrepresented in STEM employment. While women make up 48% of the entire workforce in the United States, they represent only 24% of total STEM jobs. In college, female students are 50% more likely to drop a STEM major than male students after taking the first required calculus class — according to studies, women enter these high-level classes at a lower confidence level than men.

Young children also struggle with confidence. Children believe that boys are more suited to math than girls, even in second grade. Girls as young as 6 are less likely to think their gender is “really, really smart” and less likely to play a game described as being for super-smart kids. Female teachers may also transmit math anxiety to their female students. Studies suggest cultural factors like these stereotypes may affect children’s interests and aspirations, leading to girls’ disinterest in math and science by a young age. In fact, knowing a stereotype exists makes it more difficult to disprove it.

However, while national test results offer numbers that may reinforce these stereotypes, girls have historically received better grades than boys across all subjects. Grades, more than tests, demonstrate students’ ability to perform over the course of a year, including social and environmental factors. Other studies show that there is no correlation between ability and sex when it comes to math performance, and that the gender gap is due to sociocultural factors. According to the NAEP numbers, girls closed the math gap almost completely by 8th grade, even overtaking male students in certain states. Overall, by 8th grade, female students were falling just 1% behind male students on average. However, proficiency levels for boys and girls lowered considerably across the nation by 8th grade — 40% of tested students were considered proficient in math in 4th grade, dropping to 33% just 4 years later. By 8th grade, an average of 34% male students and 33% female students were considered proficient.

Notable states

Massachusetts’s results were interesting because 57% of boys were proficient in 4th grade, compared to 50% of girls. In 8th grade, girls outperformed boys. 53% of girls were proficient, compared to 49% of boys. Female students who lagged in 4th grade later outperformed male students in 15 states overall, creating the biggest gaps in Hawaii (4%), Massachusetts (4%), Oregon (3%), and Washington, D.C. (3%).

In Oregon, more female students were considered proficient in 8th grade than in 4th, a reversal of most of the country’s performance. They also outperformed male students in the state in 8th grade.

In West Virginia, male and female students were equal in both grades, averaging 33% proficiency in 4th grade and 21% in 8th grade (though both of these averages are well below the national average for those grades). In Minnesota, Washington, Maryland, and Mississippi the results in both genders were nearly equal in both 4th and 8th grades.

The map below compares math test scores for female students in 4th grade by each state. Click on your state to see scores for male and female students.

Answers to sample test questions: Question 1 (D), Question 2 (C), Question 3 (B), Question 4 (A)

 


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