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Diversity and inclusion

Gender gap in science exam performance disappears for longer tests, says study

03 Sep 2019
Boy and a girl in a classroom
Mind the gap: while boys performed better than girls at the start of tests, that gap closed the longer the exam went on. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Monkey-Business-Images)

Females can sustain their performance for longer than males during maths and science exams, which can reduce the gender gap in results if tests are long enough. That is according to researchers in Spain and the Netherlands, who have analysed the performance of four different cohorts of thousands of high-school students from around the world.

Previous research has shown that male school students tend to perform better than females on maths and science tests, while girls outperform boys on verbal and reading tests. In the latest study, Matthijs Oosterveen, from the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Pau Balart, from the University of the Balearic Islands, went beyond just looking at overall scores and examined what happens during exams, looking at how students perform on each question.

This involved anlayzing the results from the 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — an international test of 15-year-old students in mathematics, reading and science that takes place every three years. In 2018 more than half a million students from 80 countries took the assessment.

We are working on a new project that aims to understand [these results] more deeply

Matthijs Oosterveen

Oosterveen and Balart found that, on average, females outperform males on reading tests, while boys do better on maths and science tests. But they also discovered that while boys scored better at the start of the maths and science tests, their performance dropped at a faster rate than that of girls. Female students were better able to sustain their performance – and this persisted across test years and the vast majority of countries. The researchers found that in more than half of the countries where female students had an initial disadvantage in maths and science, female students decreased this disadvantage by at least half during the two-hour test.

To test the idea that longer tests could reduce the gender gap, the researchers then examined a dataset of more than 400 maths tests of varying lengths. They found that males scored better than females on shorter tests, but once tests reached 125 questions the gender difference in performance disappeared.

“Unsatisfying” answers

The researchers do not fully understand why this gender difference exists. They looked at whether differences in test-taking strategies, levels of effort and non-cognitive skills played a role, but these were unable to explain the variation. “We are left with an answer that is unsatisfying, which is we don’t know yet,” Oosterveen told Physics World. “But we are working on a new project that aims to understand this more deeply”.

For now, the researchers say that their results suggest that test length may help explain some of the differences and contradictions between previous studies looking at the existence and size of the gender gap among school-aged children. Oosterveen says that the most important finding of their work is that it indicates a worldwide female difference in test taking. He adds that there are negative stereotypes around females and maths, but their results show “a female advantage in test taking”.

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