Even if boys score better than girls on standardized tests, they get lower grades

by Grace

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college….

The sometimes controversial Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about this problem of “Boys at the back” in our public schools, illustrated in this chart posted by Mark Perry.


Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.

The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.

The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.

That last sentence, which I’ve highlighted, may hold a key to one reason for the gender gap in school performance.  Girls have the edge over boys not only in earlier development of certain social and organizational skills, but also in reading and writing.  Over time schools have pushed down more rigorous academic and organizational requirements to younger grades, making it more likely for boys to develop early gaps that often persist to the upper grades and college.

A related reason for the gender gap may be what David Brooks called the lack of cultural diversity.

… The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.

Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys….

I wrote about this last year.

Brooks is describing what is often called the “feminization” of public schools.  This term is distasteful to some, probably because it reinforces gender stereotypes.  Whatever the label, it does appear that schools have become “culturally homogeneous” in a way that hurts boys more than girls.  It starts in elementary school when an early reader is told that he got the wrong answer because he picked “mad” instead of “sad” to describe how the boy in the story feels after he doesn’t get the bike he wanted for his birthday.*  It continues through high school where group discussions in history class only allow expressions of compassion for victims of war but no praise for brilliant military maneuvers.  The message is clear – only certain types of behaviors and thoughts are welcome in the classroom.

There’s no doubt that students do need to be ”studious and industrious” to perform well academically.  It just seems that public schools are misguided in the methods they use in trying to develop those qualities in all students, particularly in boys.

Suggested reforms

Sommers points out that this gender gap should motivate schools to find ways to promote boys’ academic achievement, as they have done for girls in recent cases when the gender gap has been reversed.  She suggests some changes that the British, the Canadians and the Australians have implemented.

… These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose).

One example of how poor noncognitive skills can create a misalignment between grades and test scores

I know of a case where a middle school boy consistently earned almost perfect test scores in his social studies class and who reached the finals in his state’s geography bee contest.  However, his average grade was significantly lowered by his poor class notes, likely due to a deficit in “noncognitive skills”.  Because of his grades, and because “behavior and work habits” counted so heavily in the admissions process, he was shut out of his high school’s social studies honors track.  If not for his parents’ intervention to override the school’s policies and allow him to enroll in the honors course, he might have languished in courses that were too easy and boring for him.  As it happened, he went on to graduate with honors and enroll in an elite university.


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