Expert Commentary

Geographic variation in the gender differences in test scores

2010 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on how the disparity in men's and women's math and verbal test scores might be explained by state or regional differences.

The issue of gender gap in test scores has long been part of the education-policy debate, and explanations remain highly contested.  While the gaps between men and women in the math and science fields have closed in recent decades, strategies to address the disparities are still evolving and being tested in the classroom.

A 2010 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Geographic Variation in the Gender Differences in Test Scores,” looks at how the disparity in test scores might be explained by state or regional differences.

The paper’s key findings include:

  • The mean test scores of men and women do not differ very substantially. Compared to female students, male students registered higher mean math and science scores by 0.17 and 0.06 standard deviations respectively. The mean male students’ reading score is 0.38 standard deviation lower.
  • The disparities widen at higher percentiles of the tests. At the top 5%, the ratios of male-to-female students’ math and science scores are 1.87 and 1.40 standard deviations respectively. Conversely, the ratio of female-to-male students’ reading score is 2.31.
  • Gender stereotypes prevail more strongly in certain states and regions. States with higher male-to-female score ratios in math and science tests are more likely to register higher female-to-male score ratios in reading tests.

The authors conclude that because individuals’ genetic makeup is likely to be consistent across all states, the variation in test scores “suggests environments significantly impact gender disparities.”

Tags: gender, math, science

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