The results of a recent assessment of eighth graders’ engineering and technology knowledge prompted headlines boasting that girls “beat,” “outshine,” “best,” and “trump” boys in math and science. But further analysis shows the gender gap in teens’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) performance is more complicated than the old playground taunt that “girls rule, boys drool.”
By congressional mandate, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is administered every year to select students in the fourth, eighth, and 12th grades. Last year’s test, the results of which were released this spring, showed that 15,000 eighth grade students scored an average of 152 out of 300 possible points for “technology and engineering literacy.” But girls scored an average of 155, five points higher than boys.
Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, said though girls did better on the test than boys, they still show less interest in tech subjects. “Although girls are outperforming boys, boys are taking at a higher rate more engineering classes,” she said. “They are outscoring boys whether or not they take a class.”
The NAEP presented real-world scenarios that required engineering solutions like building a bike path or creating a museum exhibit. The students needed to use a wide range of knowledge, including economics, math, and history, to successfully solve the problems. But, like nearly all modern standardized tests, reading comprehension was critical to effectively sifting through complex informational text for vital clues.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association found a pervasive reading comprehension gap between girls and boys. The study’s authors examined three decades’ worth of NAEP reading and writing data and concluded that, while male and female brains differ very little in general cognitive abilities, they show marked disparities in reading and other domains of verbal acumen such as vocabulary.
While girls seem to have the edge in eighth grade, STEM careers continue to be disproportionately populated with men. Last year, Microsoft issued a study of women and girls between ages 10 and 30 to explore why that might be the case. It concluded that girls need more role models, hands-on experience, and encouragement to stay motivated in the male-dominated industry.
News reports about the NAEP tech results included a lot of head-scratching about the apparent disconnect between test scores and career choices for women. But God’s Word helps put that head-scratching to rest. Sure, boys and girls can be smarter than one another in many different ways. And they can choose their careers and answer God’s call in different ways, too, living adult lives of dignity and purpose even if they don’t add up precisely on the world’s balance sheet.