Friday, March 11, 2011

Gender and reading scores

Worldwide, boys lag behind girls in reading. The 2009 PISA reading exams for 15-year-olds show boys' performance trailing girls' in all 65 participating countries. The average score difference was 39 points, reported as equivalent to about one year of schooling.

How does the US do in this regard? Interestingly, though US students scored in general at the top of the middle rank (about 17th of 65 overall), we had one of the lower girl-boy differences, ranking 5th with a score difference of 25 points.

The 2010 report on PISA offers some intriguing hints about the differences in how boys and girls read. For example, almost 30% of test items consisted of non-continuous text such as maps, tables, graphs, and diagrams. On these items, girls still scored better than boys, but the score difference fell by about six points. That is, boys scored relatively better on text that asked them to examine a diagram or table and extract information than they did on reading and interpreting chunks of continuous literary or informational text. Maybe boys rely more on visual or spatial clues, or maybe they have shorter attention spans.

To dig a little deeper into trends in boy-girl reading gaps, I looked at NAEP scores for 1998, 2000, and 2009. Anyone can do the same with NAEP's very useful Data Explorer tool. NAEP, commonly called "the Nation's Report Card," tests samples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in reading, mathematics, science, and sometimes other subjects. Looking at reading results over the past ten years, three trends are evident.

1. Girls score higher than boys on reading at every grade level tested, and the score differences increase as students move up in grades. For example, here's how much better girls scored than boys at the different grades in 2009.

4th grade 6 points
8th grade 10 points
12th grade 12 points

What do these differences mean? Although converting score differences to instructional time is somewhat shaky statistically, NAEP is a continuous scale with an average score difference between grades 4 and 8 of 43 points and between grade 8 and 12 of 24 points. Therefore, we could estimate that the 4th grade gap is equivalent to about 5 months of school time and the 8th and 12th grade gaps are equivalent to between 13 months and 2 years.

2. Girl-boy reading score differences have narrowed over the past decade. The boy-girl gap has fallen by 20% to 45% since 1998.

3. The reason for the gap decrease, though, is mixed. At 4th grade, everybody's scores have gone up, while boys have gained more - cause for celebrations. At 8th grade, boys improved while girls' performance remained essentially flat. And at grade 12, girls' scores fell while boys' scores hardly budged. This is part of an overall trend in reading: we're making progress in the younger grades, but that progress hasn't translated into more proficient reading at the higher grades.

There's a lot to think about in delving into these data, and I hope to keep delving in future posts, so tune in again tomorrow. I promise fewer statistics and more ideas about what might help.

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