Victorian Certificate of Education: Mathematics, Science and Gender

Article excerpt

Gender differences in participation and performance at 'high stakes' examinations have received much public attention, which has often focused on mathematics and science subjects. This paper describes the innovative forms of assessment introduced into mathematics and science subjects within the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) system. Results from these subjects are examined for patterns of gender differences in participation and performance over the period 1994-1999. A larger proportion of males than females studied all the VCE science and mathematics subjects except Biology and Psychology over this period. Based on study scores, females, on average, out-performed males in almost all VCE science and mathematics subjects in nearly every year from 1994-1999. As exceptions to the patterns, males out-performed females in Chemistry and Mathematical Methods. Results from a general ability test are used to question the legitimacy of gender comparisons in subjects in which enrolment is no longer compulsory. The data do not support simplistic conclusions about gender differences in participation and performance.

Keywords

academic achievement

gender issues

mathematics

sciences

sex differences

student participation

Introduction

Historically mathematics has been viewed as the preserve of white, middle-class males. However, over the past three decades in particular, there have been stringent efforts in many different countries to re-dress this perception. Intervention programs aimed at improving female participation rates and attaining equity in levels of achievement have flourished and, to some extent, succeeded (Leder, Forgasz, & Solar, 1996). In Australia, achieving gender equity has been a high priority. To this end, legislation has been put in place to deal with discriminatory practices in fields as diverse as education, the law, employment, and welfare. State and federal governments have published reports on girls' education that have identified specific school-related factors linked to the perpetuation of inequities (e.g. Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1975; Ministerial Advisory Committee on Women and Girls, 1991; Ministry of Education Western Australia, 1991). More recently, concerns have been expressed about problems experienced by boys (e.g. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training, 2002; O'Doherty, 1994). Again this trend is not unique to Australia (for the United Kingdom---see, for example, Warrington & Younger, 2000; Weiner, Arnot, & David, 1997; for the United States--see Kimmel, 2000; more generally, see the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001). Further explorations of gender differences in educational performance thus seem warranted. This paper draws on a range of data from the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) to examine patterns of gender differences in mathematics and science subjects.

Australian context

The Blackburn report (Ministerial Review, 1985) served as a focal point in Victoria for questioning curriculum content and assessment approaches, particularly in the postcompulsory years of schooling. In other states across Australia, similar issues were being raised. During the 1980s and 1990s, widespread course structure changes were introduced at the upper secondary school level, in part to cater for the different needs of an increasingly diverse student population remaining at school to Year 12.

Male and female enrolments in Australian upper secondary schools have increased substantially from 1970 to the present. Since 1976, there has been a greater percentage of females than males in Year 12--the final year of schooling (Allen & Bell, 1996; Cortis & Newmarch, 2000; Dekkers, De Laeter, & Malone, 1991), with the gap between the proportional participation of males and females increasing to approximately 10 per cent in 1998 (Marks, Fleming, Long, & McMillan, 2000). …