Why does this matter? These are skills that experts say Americans must have if they are to compete in a global marketplace. U.S. students typically have middling performance on international assessments gauging math and science ability, as well as problem-solving skills. That being said, it’s important to remember NAEP is just one indicator of student knowledge and skills, and it’s not designed to evaluate the merits of a particular educational program or intervention.
Breaking down the NAEP scores by gender, girls averaged 151 points (out of a possible 300), three points higher than for boys. Measured another way, 45 percent of females met or exceeded the proficient level, compared with 42 percent of males. The chart below highlights some of the gender gaps by race and ethnicity.
The gaps were far wider between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers—a 28-point difference in proficiency levels. And the disparity was most dramatic among racial groups: 56 percent of white students met or exceeded the benchmark for proficiency, compared with just 18 percent of their black peers. (More on this angle from Philissa Cramer of Chalkbeat.)
So why did so much of this week’s media call with reporters focus on the relatively smaller lead girls held over boys on the new assessment? That was because “we did not expect this pattern,” explained Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.“It looks like girls have the ability and critical-thinking skills to succeed in fields of technology and engineering, and that is worth noting,” said Carr, whose organization oversees NAEP, explaining the likely reaction to the latest data.
By comparison, the gaps in socioeconomic status and race have long been evidenced in NAEP scores for other core subjects: “It’s sort of the same old story,” Carr said.
To be sure, girls and women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) advanced coursework, degree programs, and careers. A wealth of initiatives—both public and private—are aimed at boosting those numbers.
While the “Girls Outperform Boys” headlines might grab the public’s eye, the underlying story is more complicated, said Karen Peterson, the chief executive of the National Girls Collaborative Project. The long-term goal, Peterson said, isn’t getting females to best their male counterparts on a particular test but to increase their persistence and resilience in STEM studies so that those early kernels of interest translate into meaningful careers.
“I worry about the knee-jerk reaction when we compartmentalize these kinds of test results by gender,” Peterson said. “Someone is going to take this headline and say ‘We need a new initiative aimed at boys.’ In reality, the training and work we do with educators around increasing girls’ interest in STEM are teaching strategies that are going to help boys, too. This is not zero-sum competition.”