Despite the all-too-common perception that boys tend to do better than girls in math, a new study shows that female students actually perform on par with their male counterparts in math, from early grade school all the way through high school.
In an enormous study of more than 7 million kids, researchers looked at schools' yearly math tests across 10 states to compare the genders' scores.
Research from almost 20 years ago showed that girls and boys fared virtually the same in math during grade school, but then girls' math proficiency dropped during high school. Yet this new study shows boys and girls on a level math playing field from start to finish. The fact that girls are taking more advanced math courses may be a big reason why the gender gap is closing, the researchers say.
Though the study did show a slight gain on SAT scores (with boys scoring 7% higher than girls in 2007) that's likely because far more girls take the SAT than boys, which skews the numbers, say the researchers.
One concern raised by the study is that current state assessments did not test for more complex problem-solving skills necessary for future success in science and math careers.
What This Means to You
These new findings will hopefully help dispel myths about girls' capabilities and learning styles when it comes to math. When girls (as well as their parents and teachers) believe they can't understand or excel in math the way boys can, it can negatively affect not only their performance and confidence in math during school, but also in their professional choices as adults.
Try some of these simple ways to help make math an enjoyable part of learning, instead of something kids — boys or girls — dread as they grow:
Set fundamental math skills in motion for toddlers and preschoolers:
- Look for opportunities to count together — while you walk up and down stairs, put away toys, dole out snacks, color with crayons, play with blocks, etc.
- Read picture books highlighting numbers, shapes, and patterns.
- Encourage kids to count along, point out shapes and numbers, and figure out what comes next. Introduce concepts such as bigger/smaller, same/different, more/less.
- Teach kids their age — how to count it on their fingers, then eventually how to recognize, trace, and then write the number.
- Start teaching early addition and subtraction by doing things like stacking blocks then taking some away and putting some on top.
Practice math skills by letting kids help in the kitchen. As children learn to crack eggs and stir sauce, they also can work on math skills. Count ingredients ("How many eggs?"), work on math concepts ("Are we putting in more salt or baking soda?"), sequencing skills ("What comes first…next…last?"), and fractions ("How much is 3/4 of a cup?").
Play games, starting at a young age, that promote math skills. Try:
- board games, which help teach math through counting spaces and adding die (games like "Chutes and Ladders" early on, then "Parcheesi," "Trouble," and "Sorry"). Build on math skills with "Monopoly," "Life," and "Battleship" as they grow.
- dice games that require keeping score (like "Yahtzee" and "Farkel")
- card games (like "Rummy 500," "Uno," and those that require more complex operations like "Twenty Four")
Enroll kids in a music class of their choice— let them choose the instrument they like and are most confident with playing. Why music? Kids are more likely to do better in math (and science) because music helps build reasoning skills and cognitive development, which are important to both. In fact, one study found that second-grade students who were given musical keyboard training while also using math software scored higher on math and fractions tests than students who used just the software alone. And students who've been involved in public school music programs score higher on their SATs than those who don't.
Redirect kids' inaccurate beliefs if they struggle in math (or any subject). It's important for parents to identify kids' irrational beliefs about themselves, whether they're about perfection, attractiveness, ability, or their school achievements. Helping kids set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can take root and become reality to kids. For example, a child who does very well in school but struggles with math may say, "I can't do math. I'm a bad student." Not only is this a false generalization, it's also a belief that will set the child up for failure. Encourage kids to see a situation in its true light. A helpful response might be: "You are a good student. You do great in school. Math is just a subject that you need to spend more time on. We'll work on it together." Try to figure out sample practice problems with your child and ask the teacher for advice on how to help.
Encourage kids, especially girls, to take on harder or more advanced placement math courses (like calculus) to help hone high-level math and problem-solving skills needed for placement tests, to increase their confidence, and to up their chances of being interested in (and getting) jobs related to math and science.
No matter what their age or which subjects they like and seem to excel at, try to make early learning a fun, everyday activity for your kids. Nurture and praise academic and social strengths and efforts, and help your kids work on (but never emphasize) weaknesses.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Source: "Diversity: Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance," Science, July 25, 2008.