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Report Card - Math & Science

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The enactment of Title IX 25 years ago removed many barriers to women and girls in the non-traditional fields of math and science, areas critical to their success in an increasingly technological world. However, disparities based on gender still exist in achievement and participation rates in these disciplines. Gender differences in math and science start small and grow as students reach secondary school, where boys outperform girls on standardized tests and participate in math and science classes at higher rates. In postsecondary schools, young men go on to major in math and the sciences in rates that exceed those of young women, many of whom are shut of out of the career opportunities these fields can provide.

Exclusion and Underachievement. Before Title IX, educators, guided by stereotypes that girls could not achieve in math and science, sometimes steered high school girls from higher-level math and science classes and frequently excluded them from extracurricular activities such as science and math clubs. Not surprisingly, girls' achievement in science and math courses was lower than that of their male counterparts.

Science: The 1969-70 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) of the country's students in science found grade school and middle school boys outscored girls by an average 5 points; in high school, the gap increased to 17 points. Today, the disturbing pattern persists, but the high school gap has shrunken to 11 points, thanks in part to Title IX.

Performance levels also vary by gender. Among eighth graders, the 1977 NAEP found 14 percent of boys performing at the highest levels, compared to only 9 percent of girls, a 5-point gap. In high school, the gap grew to a yawning 21 points, with 61 percent of senior boys performing at the highest levels, compared to only 40 percent of senior girls. The past 25 years have done little to close the gap: 1994 NAEP data (more recent NAEP data use different measures and therefore cannot be compared easily against 1970s data) recorded the same 10-point gap for eighth graders and an only slightly improved 19-point gap for high school students.

Math: Just as in the case of science, the gender gap in math starts out small in the early grades and grows by high school. The 1973 NAEP found that girls narrowly outscored boys at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels; by high school, however, girls had fallen behind by 8 points. By 1994 girls had lost their early edge but had moved up in high school to within 5 points of boys.

Performance levels vary by gender in math, just as in science. In 1978, 10 percent of senior boys performed at the highest math level, compared to 5 percent of senior girls. This gap also has narrowed: 1994 NAEP data measured the gap of high math proficiency at 3 points. However, on high-stakes tests, such as the SAT, the gap is much greater. Although girls' performance on the math SAT has improved somewhat, College Board data show boys still outscored girls by 35 points in 1996, compared to 44 points in 1972.

The persistence of the gender gap in high school–and its tendency to grow as students advance in grade–continues to be a subject of great concern. This gap continues in higher education and in careers in math- and science- related fields. According to the American Association of University Women, gender differences in confidence–students' belief in their ability to learn and perform well–correlate strongly with interest in math and science. Girls doubt their confidence in math and science more often than boys.

Participation Rates. Girls' participation rates have unquestionably increased since the passage of Title IX. For example, as recently as 1986, only 8 percent of high school senior girls had taken physics compared to 14 percent of boys; 39 percent of senior girls had taken chemistry compared to 42 percent of boys. By 1994, 16 percent of high school senior girls had taken physics and 55 percent had taken chemistry. And schools can no longer stop girls from taking part in math- and science-related extracurricular activities.

However, female students' participation rates decline once they enter postsecondary institutions, and steadily decrease as degree level increases. For example, in 1994:

  • In biology, women received 51 percent of bachelor's degrees, but only 41 percent of doctoral degrees.
  • In computer sciences, women received 28 percent of bachelor's, 26 percent of master's, and 15 percent of doctoral degrees.
  • Women's participation in engineering stays small and shrinks, with women receiving 15 percent of bachelor's degrees, 15 percent of master's degrees, and 11 percent of doctoral degrees.
Room for Improvement
  • The gender gap persists in girls' science and math achievement as measured by the NAEP, starting small in elementary school, and increasing in high school.
  • In high-stakes tests, such as the math SAT, large gaps persists, with girls scoring 35 points less than boys.
  • Female students' low participation rates in math and science classes decline as they advance in higher education.

As discussed in the section titled 'Access to Higher Education,' the drop in female students' participation rates in math and science likely is due, in part, to the hostile environment they encounter in these fields. Women students frequently are regarded as tokens in math or science and excluded from full participation in laboratory and field work, or experience sexual and gender-based harassment in these settings.

In addition, research shows that girls lag behind in computer usage. Although more girls in school are using computers for homework and telecommunicating, extracurricular activities such as computer clubs and contests are still overwhelmingly male. Although software companies are now marketing to girls, the games often rely on sexist plots such as mall shopping and nabbing a boyfriend. Although more girls are taking lower-level computing courses, only 16 percent of Advanced Placement computer science test takers are girls. We still have a long way to go.

Steps Forward. Teaching methods already exist to encourage and engage all students and to otherwise decrease or eliminate the gender gaps in math and science. However, educators and administrators must begin to employ these teaching methods in earlier grades if the gender gap is to disappear. Further, educators and administrators must look for ways to encourage girls to pursue math and science while in secondary school so that more women will enter these fields in colleges and pursue related careers.

Grade: C+


  • Congress should increase and target funding for the Eisenhower Professional Development program so teachers can learn techniques to close the gender gap in math and science.
  • Educators should ensure that girls are active participants in science and math classes in order to maximize their understanding of these fields.
  • OCR should step up its enforcement by conducting compliance reviews to determine the causes for women's decreased participation in math and science in higher education and by taking action against those educational institutions that allow hostile environments in these areas to persist.
  • American Association of University Women. How Schools Shortchange Girls: The AAUW Report (researched by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women) (AAUW Educational Foundation, 1992).
  • S. Blaisdell, Factors in the Underrepresentation of Women in Science and Engineering. A Review of the Literature, Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network (WEPAN) Working Paper 95–1 (Purdue University, 1995).
  • J.R. Campbell, C.M. Reese, C.Y. O'Sullivan, and J.A. Dossey, NAEP 1994 Trends in Academic Progress (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996).
  • College Board, 1996 Profile of College Bound Seniors.
  • National Research Council, Women in Science and Engineering. Increasing their Numbers in the 1990s (National Academy Press, 1991).





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