Pamela Davis-Kean told United Press International that researchers have known for some time that girls generally have been performing better than boys in math but that this "doesn't seem to be making it to the popular press."
Davis-Kean and colleagues Jacquelynne Eccles, also of the University of Michigan, and Miriam Linver of Columbia University presented their findings in a paper titled "Influences of Gender on Academic Achievement" at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence in New Orleans on April 13. The research was done on a data set collected over 17 years as part of the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions.
MSALT followed some 1,700 students in southeastern Michigan, near Ann Arbor, from seventh grade through 12th grade and beyond, looking at a wide range of interests and motivations. The subjects are now in their thirties.
"It's a diverse sample of working-class and middle-class folks," Davis-Kean said. "We had 4,000 in the sample when we first started collecting the data in 1983."
Researchers handed out questionnaires to students, and the schools provided students' grades and scores on standardized tests. "After that, they (the subjects) tell us how they're doing in their college courses," Davis-Kean said.
"We actually have longitudinal data -- following the same groups of kids over time -- which we didn't have before. We were able to see how these kids started out and where they went." Many previous studies were based on data collected in one year for many age groups.
Data are still being collected. "It's an ongoing study," the developmental psychologist told UPI.
Girls get better math grades than boys in elementary, middle and high school, she said, although not necessarily higher scores on standardized tests.
The researchers found a direct correlation between boys' interest in math and their performance. "If they were interested in math, they did well and vice-versa -- both ways," Davis-Kean said.
"Girls had a total disjunct. It didn't matter how well they were performing; their interest was lower."
Interest in math declined for both sexes throughout high school, but the interest of girls in the honors/college track began lower than that of boys in that track and declined through the 12th grade, while the boys' interest stabilized across high school.
The researcher was asked if the difference was mainly hard-wired and biological, or cultural and learned.
"I think the evidence we have so far is that it's probably cultural," she replied.
Davis-Kean said another analysis on the same set of students presented at the New Orleans meeting showed that girls were getting their negative attitudes about math and the technical fields from their mothers.
The correlation was direct, she said. The stronger the mother's distaste for the idea of her daughter working in such a field, the less likely the girl was to enter it.
The study emerged from University of Michigan's Psychology Department and was first funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Development. It now is carried on by the university's Institute for Research on Women and Gender and funded by the National Science Foundation to see why more women and minorities are not going into the information technology work force.
"Why aren't schools making a difference? Even if the mothers are turned off, why can't schools change that?" Davis-Kean asked.
"The other thing that came out of the whole symposium was that even though we were finding no difference in math, we were finding a large difference favoring girls in reading and English," she added. The gap begins in kindergarten and continues to grow all the way through high school, she said.
"Although lots of money has been going into the women, there isn't anything going in to address the issues with the boys."
Dyslexia is found among boys at greater rates than among girls. The discrepancy between the reading ability of boys and girls "is a troublesome problem that educators will almost certainly have to address in the near future," Davis-Kean said.
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