The new study reviewed the math skills of over a million subjects between 1990 and 2007. Test subjects came from a wide variety of ages, education levels, and countries. The result?
“The gender difference in math performance has disappeared today. The data show that both teachers and parents continue to hold stereotypes that boys are better at math than girls are, despite evidence to the contrary,” said Dr. Janet Hyde, the head researcher.
Historically speaking, there has been a statistical gap between the genders. In Wisconsin—the state where the study originated—boys averaged a 623 (out of 800) in the math section and girls averaged a 587. National scores placed boys at 534 and girls at 500.
But according to Hyde, this may all be attributed to the way we, as a society, think about math and genders.
Parents and teachers give little implicit messages about how good they expect kids to be at different subjects and that powerfully affects their self-concept or ability. When you are deciding about a major in physics, this can become a huge factor. If, before a test, you imply that the women should expect to do a little worse than the men, that hurts performance. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The study is bolstered by another recent study that ranked gender as the least important among nine factors that could influence math performance of 10-year-olds. Other factors include parental education, family income, and school.
Hyde hopes that the study will force policy makers to rethink standardized tests, popularized by the No Child Left Behind Act, which tends to favor low-level math, such as multiplication.
High-stakes testing really needs to include higher-level problem-solving, which tends to be more important in jobs that require math skills. But because many teachers teach to the test, they will not teach higher reasoning unless the tests start to include it.
But what does Hyde hope is the biggest takeaway? That parents start having faith in their daughters’ math skills.
“They should have confidence in their daughter’s math performance.” she said. “They need to realize that women can do math just as well as men.”