The 'Math Gap': Puzzling Sex Differences

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, December 6, 1986 | Go to article overview

The 'Math Gap': Puzzling Sex Differences


Bower, Bruce, Science News


The 'math gap': Puzzling sex differences

For some time, scientists have observed that boys score much higher than girls on mathematics tests. Based on studies of more than 100,000 intellectually gifted 12- and 13-year-olds, for example, there are 13 boys for every girl who scores at least 700 out of 800 on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) (SN: 4/27/85, p.263). What researchers have not been able to calculate, however, is how the "math gap" is affected by parental attitudes and cultural values.

Now, a report in the November DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY says that several plausible environmental influences on mathematics achievement do not appear to sway the SAT scores of gifted and above-average junior-high students. The first possibility examined by Camilla Benbow Of Iowa State University in Ames and Cindy L. Raymond of Yale University was that youngsters consider mathematically related fields to be masculine domains, so girls are less motivated in those areas. Second, since no sex differences in verbal ability have been found, the psychologists looked at whether parents encouraged mathematically talented students more than verbally talented students and whether males received more encouragement in quantitative areas than females.

"It is improbable that these factors influence the sex differences in math achievement among intellectually talented children," says Benbow. The data, she adds, do not apply to normal-range achievers in mathematics.

The 200 extremely talented students in the study, whose average age was nearly 14 years old, had taken the SAT about one year earlier and scored at least 700 on the mathematics section or at least 630 on the verbal section. Youngsters who surpassed both the mathematics and verbal cutoffs were excluded from the project.

A slightly older comparison group of 111 students had taken the SAT about two years prior to the study and achieved approximately chance scores (combined mathematics and verbal scores no greater than 540). They had, however, obtained extremely high scores on an ingrade achievement test. The SAT is designed to be taken by high school seniors.

On questionnaires, neither the gifted nor the comparison group reported significant gender differences in parental encouragement. Intellectually talented males did not perceive greater mathematical encouragement than did their female counterparts. …

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