Hardly a week goes by without a panel, conference, or symposium on luring women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. Even the president has joined in: “We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields.” He has his numbers right. Women currently receive less than a fifth of all bachelor’s degrees in physics, computer science, and engineering. In the last national count, only 8,851 women had majored in mathematics and statistics.
We’ve heard most of the reasons, not least hostility in laboratories. But a more central cause became apparent as I began researching the teaching and testing of mathematics. Standardized testing in math, where women do significantly worse than men, is setting women back before they even begin college. Since mathematics is the first hurdle for STEM fields, women are unlikely to sign on if they’ve already been told that they don’t measure up. We know that the problem is the test. It’s not the students, because girls and women are getting better grades than boys and men in high-school and college mathematics courses. Without changing our methods for measuring ability, we stand little chance of changing the gender imbalance among our scientists and engineers.
The importance we assign to standardized tests is eclipsing that of assessments by sentient teachers. Each year, more weight is given to scores disgorged by the ACT and the SAT, backstopped by the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT, not to mention standardized Common Core tests, which are given over to firms like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Computer-awarded scores are touted as objective, whereas grades bestowed by teachers are seen as subjective, if not tainted by biases. (An ACT study intimated that the principal victims of prejudice were boys.)
On last year’s SAT, boys averaged 527 in the mathematics section against 496 for girls—a far wider gulf than elsewhere in the test. The ACT’s gap is smaller, largely because its test is closer to what schools actually teach, but boys are still visibly ahead. In fact, a more reliable gauge is performance in high school before they take tests and in college courses afterward. I did some calculations to see what would happen if the SAT’s mathematics scores reflected classroom grades. If that were the case, girls would not only erase their current 31-point deficit, but would move 32 points ahead of their male classmates. With the ACT, they would gain 28 points and also pass the boys. (I’ve converted ACT scores here to the SAT range.)
Since we know that girls and women are just as intelligent and adaptable as boys and men, why aren’t they faring equally well with an instrument that has been in place for over half a century? I turned to Marcia Linn at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied grades and scores for over 20 years, especially gender differences in mathematics. “Females turn out to be better course takers,” she has concluded; “males turn out to be better test takers.” She notes that boys are more apt to take physics and computer science, which sharpen quantitative and spatial skills. And more college-aspiring girls come from lower-income homes with fewer resources for tutoring. But what ultimately separates the scores, Linn says, is the “tendency of girls to be more conscientious than boys.”