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Girls outperforming boys

Academic 'gender gap' has educators searching for solutions

Brent Boyer

The numbers practically jumped off the page.

Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis has tracked student assessment data for the past eight years, but nothing prepared him for the gap in academic achievement that stared him in the face earlier this year.

“The difference was glaring,” DeVincentis said last week. “Our girls have been outperforming our boys for several years now in all areas — reading, writing and math.”

In some subject areas, particularly writing, “outperforming” may not do justice to the way female students are outpacing their male classmates.

Last year, 43 percent more fifth-grade girls than boys scored advanced or proficient on the district’s writing assessment.

Colorado Student Assessment Program test scores reaffirm the achievement discrepancies.

“Our boys, in writing, drop behind the girls by about 20 percent, and that’s across all grade levels,” DeVincentis said.

What’s dubbed as the “gender gap” isn’t confined to elementary schools or even the Steamboat Springs School District. Girls are achieving more academically than boys across the country and at most age levels, and the trend has educators searching for solutions.

The gender gap

Last month, at a Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services meeting, officials from six regional school districts analyzed the gender gap. What came out of the meeting surprised most in attendance, BOCES Executive Director Jane Toothaker said.

“We saw, almost glaringly, that in all of our districts, girls are outperforming boys,” she said. “It was kind of an eye-opener for us. It’s a crucial issue, and our scores are really showing it’s significant.”

The gap is most prevalent in language arts areas such as reading and writing.

In 2001, for example, 68 percent of the Steamboat Springs School District’s fourth-grade girls scored advanced or proficient on the CSAP writing test, compared with 62 percent of the boys. The following year, as fifth-graders, 82 percent of the girls scored advanced or proficient, while just 74 percent of the boys did the same. As sixth-graders, the percentage of girls scoring advanced or proficient climbed to 86 percent; the percentage of boys scoring that well remained at 74 percent.

High school test results reflect a similar disparity in writing proficiency. Two years ago, 85 percent of Steamboat’s 10th-grade girls scored proficient or better on the CSAP writing test, compared with only 61 percent of the boys.

Reading tests provide similar results. Ninety-one percent of the same sophomore girls scored proficient or above on the CSAP reading test; 72 percent of the boys did the same. High school girls scored, on average, 22 points higher on the verbal section of the 2002 Scholastic Achievement Test, a college entrance exam.

“Obviously it concerns me,” Steamboat Springs High School Assistant Principal Mike Knezevich said. “I want to see all of our students achieving at higher levels.”

Even in math, a subject long considered to better suit the brain function of boys, girls have closed the achievement gap, and, in some grade levels, swung it in their favor.

This fall, the high school offered its students two sections of advanced-placement calculus, a class Knezevich considers one of the toughest at the school. Total enrollment in the classes is 27 students, 14 of whom were female.

“We really do buck the system in terms of the number of girls in our upper-level mathematics classes,” Knezevich said.

Some educators speculate that two decades’ worth of nationwide focus on increasing the math and science performance of girls is reaping rewards, but also may be the reason male achievement has waned.

“Part of it, I think, is the focus has been on the girls,” Knezevich said.

Results from standardized tests, which some say may incorporate a gender bias that aids female students, aren’t the only area the gender gap is evident.

Male students are more likely to be the subject of disciplinary action in Steamboat schools and more often are placed in special education than female students.

“The one that’s glaring is a lot of the discipline stuff and the number of our male students in special education,” Knezevich said. “Unfortunately, a lot of boys end up in special education or resource, and that’s one of the things we’re tracking.”

The majority of students in the high school’s leadership class are girls, and most of this year’s student council members also are girls. Even enrollment in technology classes, typically a male stronghold, has shifted toward female majority.

Boys will be boys

Research leaves little doubt that boys and girls learn differently because of biological and neurological differences.

Boys tend to be active learners and need to move around during class, take breaks and use hands-on activities, Knezevich said.

“They need to be active,” he said. “They need to have the classroom broken up. Different instructional strategies need to be used.”

Classes longer than 90 minutes in length can be a struggle for students, particularly boys, who need a break or an opportunity to release pent-up energy, Knezevich said. Not providing them that break can, and has, resulted in student “blow ups” — with Knezevich’s office the subsequent destination.

Environmental issues play a role in the gap, too, DeVincentis said.

He points to the way boys are depicted on TV shows and in movies, often as “the typical jock, nonacademic type.”

For years DeVincentis has participated in weekly “Project Chat” sessions, when he joins a group of students for lunch. Asking students to look ahead to their future is often a topic of conversation.

“There are only two boys I can remember who wanted to be something other than an athlete,” DeVincentis said. Doctor and lawyer are the most-cited career choices for the female students he talks with.

Boys learn to equate “cool” with being macho, which often means suppressing emotional expression and shying away from the appearance of being smart, Knezevich wrote in the high school’s November newsletter. There seems to be a stereotype that it’s not cool for boys to be good readers and writers.

“We need to break down those stereotypes,” he said. “It’s got to be done at an earlier age. You’ve got to find areas where boys are interested to get them excited about reading and writing.”

Increasing the presence of positive male role models may help reverse the notion that smart boys aren’t cool boys. Dads rarely volunteer in schools, and the majority of district teachers are women, DeVincentis and Knezevich said.

“How many adult, male, educated role models do these kids have as they’re growing up?” Knezevich asked rhetorically.

One of the first steps to reducing the emerging gender gap is to raise the expectations for male students and inform parents about the discrepancies, DeVincentis said.

“You have to let people know about the gap,” he said. “I think a lot of people are still under the perception that boys outperform girls.”

Addressing the gap

The gender gap is only beginning to make itself apparent, partly because of the increased use of assessment tests and the subsequent ability of school districts to better track individuals and groups of students.

How to address the gap is in discussion phase.

“We haven’t done anything but tracked it, so far,” DeVincentis said.

The 2003-04 school year marks the first time district schools must track a particular subgroup of students, mostly through assessment test results. Soda Creek Elementary School and Strawberry Park identified gender groups with a specific emphasis on narrowing, or at least continuing to monitor, the gender gap.

Differentiated instruction — using different instructional strategies to meet the needs of all the students in a class — likely will play a key role in addressing the gap, officials agreed.

“It’s a matter of really looking at how we can meet the needs of each group,” Content Standards Director Kelly Stanford said. “This is really reinforcement that we can’t operate from a mindset that one size fits all.”

In the meantime, district officials will continue to track the data that’s helped make the gender gap so evident. For many, that data is more than indicative of a trend; it’s downright troubling.

“I worry about our boys a lot,” Knezevich said.


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