U.S. Girl Students Outperform Boys in Most Subjects, Study Finds

Published March 1, 2005

“Girls and young women still have a long way to go in gaining full educational equality,” says NOW President Kim Gandy. According to author and American Enterprise Institute fellow Christina Hoff Sommers, however, “Quite generally, a review of the facts shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of a widening educational gender gap.”

A new report issued by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) could help settle the dispute, which has important public policy implications. The study finds “females are now doing as well as or better than males on many indicators of achievement and educational attainment, and that large gaps that once existed between males and females have been eliminated in most cases and have significantly decreased in other cases.”

Trends in Educational Equity of Girls & Women: 2004, issued in November 2004, updates a 2000 report and provides data on male and female differences in early childhood education through higher education, participation in risk behaviors, employment, and wage earnings.

According to the study, early childhood education experiences are similar for girls and boys. In elementary and secondary education, however, girls consistently outpace boys in reading and writing in all grades. Science and history proficiency rates are similar for both sexes. Differences favoring boys in math and geography are small.

Boys are more likely to participate in risky behaviors such as drugs and violence, the study notes. With the exception of sports, girls are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Females are more likely to graduate from high school and college, according to the report. Males are more likely to participate in the workforce, however, and typically earn higher wages than females with the same level of education.

Girls Read, Write Better

Specifically, the report finds:

  • Internationally, fourth-grade girls significantly outperformed boys in every G8 country that participated in the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Fifteen-year-old girls outperformed boys among the 28 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries participating in the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
  • Girls in grades 4, 8, and 12 consistently outperform males in reading and writing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Participation in preprimary and kindergarten programs and literacy activities increased between 1990 and 2001 for both sexes.
  • Achievement on general knowledge assessments is similar, but a higher percentage of girls (80 percent) than boys (73 percent) recognize words by sight by the second semester of first grade. By the third grade, word recognition rates are similar.
  • Overall, girls are more likely to take the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, but the average score for boys is higher.

Math Difference Small

In math achievement on NAEP tests, “the gap between average scale scores has been quite small,” the DoE report noted. More boys than girls take the AP science and calculus exams, and they receive higher average scores. A similar gender gap is observable on the PISA exam, but “the differences were neither as large nor as consistent across countries as the differences favoring females in reading.”

In science achievement, there was no consistent pattern of male or female advantage across grades on the past two NAEP exams. With the exception of physics, girls enroll in equally or more challenging math and science coursework. Boys, however, are more likely to report liking math and science.

Boys outperformed girls on the past two NAEP geography exams, but there was no gap in NAEP history performance.

Boys Have More Problems

Elementary school boys are more likely than girls to repeat a grade, and high school boys are more likely than girls to drop out of school, the report noted. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, emotional disturbance, or speech impediment. Boys also are more likely to be overweight, according to the report.

The study reported that a higher percentage of boys than girls are victims of criminal activity. Boys are also more likely to drink, take drugs, or engage in violence, the study said. Less than one-third of high school seniors of both sexes reported liking school very much, a decline from 1980, when 50 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys indicated they liked school very much.

Girls are more likely than boys to join academic clubs, participate in music and performing arts, write for the school newspaper or yearbook, and run for student government, the study noted. Boys are more likely to engage in sports. There is no difference in computer usage, at home or in school, between the two sexes.

College Participation Favors Girls

Girls are more likely to enroll in college immediately after high school and to complete a degree than are boys, according to the report. Girls earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees and are closing the gap in attainment of professional and doctoral degrees.

The gender gap in collegiate sports participation favoring boys has narrowed. In addition, the report noted, female athletes are more likely to graduate than male athletes.

There are gender differences in college major preferences, according to the report. Males are more likely to receive degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science. Females are more likely to earn degrees in the health professions, teaching, biology, and accounting.

Males are more likely to participate in the workforce than females. However, rates of employment are closer among men and women with college degrees. Although the wage gap favoring males has narrowed, males on average earn more than their female counterparts.

According to the report, the wage differences “may be partly a reflection of different patterns of labor market participation and job choice.” Similar wage differences exist in other industrialized nations.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation.

For more information …

Trends in Educational Equity of Girls & Women: 2004 is available online at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2005/2005016.pdf.