How much of a gender gap do we have in K-12 education in the United States? Are girls experiencing a significant disparity? Some researchers believe so, and they are all about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but they neglect a greater disparity between boys and girls in reading and college attendance.

For instance, Joseph Cimpian, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, writing for the Brookings Institution said that our education system undermines gender equity.

He writes:

For over a decade now, I have studied gender achievement with my colleague Sarah Lubienski, a professor of math education at Indiana University-Bloomington. In a series of studies using data from both the 1998-99 and 2010-11 kindergarten cohorts of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, we found that no average gender gap in math test scores existed when boys and girls entered kindergarten, but a gap of nearly 0.25 standard deviations developed in favor of the boys by around second or third grade.

For comparison purposes, the growth of the black-white math test score gap was virtually identical to the growth in the gender gap. Unlike levels and growth in race-based gaps, though, which have been largely attributed to a combination of differences in the schools attended by black and white students and to socio-economic differences, boys and girls for the most part attend the same schools and come from families of similar socio-economic status. This suggests that something may be occurring within schools that contributes to an advantage for boys in math.

Exploring deeper, we found that the beliefs that teachers have about student ability might contribute significantly to the gap. When faced with a boy and a girl of the same race and socio-economic status who performed equally well on math tests and whom the teacher rated equally well in behaving and engaging with school, the teacher rated the boy as more mathematically able—an alarming pattern that replicated in a separate data set collected over a decade later.

Another way of thinking of this is that in order for a girl to be rated as mathematically capable as her male classmate, she not only needed to perform as well as him on a psychometrically rigorous external test, but also be seen as working harder than him. Subsequent matching and instrumental variables analyses suggested that teachers’ underrating of girls from kindergarten through third grade accounts for about half of the gender achievement gap growthin math. In other words, if teachers didn’t think their female students were less capable, the gender gap in math might be substantially smaller.

This is interesting and I think their study should be looked at further and I’m sure there are some teachers who do this, but he points out that assessment scores don’t necessarily back this up.

(S)tate standardized tests consistently show small or no differencesbetween boys and girls in math achievement, which contrasts with somewhat larger gaps on NAEPand PISA, as well as with gaps at the top of the distribution on the ECLS, SAT Mathematics assessment, and the American Mathematics Competition. The reasons for these discrepancies are not entirely clear, but what is clear is that there is no reason to expect that “hardening” the role of gender in accountability policies that use existing state tests and current benchmarks will change the current state of gender gaps.

I looked at NAEP scores for 4th, 8th, and 12th-Graders. The gender gap was nothing in comparison to say the white-black performance gap that widened.


The gap closes from 4th-grade to 8th-grade. By 12th-grade (only four years of data available) the gap widens a little more to an average of three points, but some students get no further than Algebra II while others take Calculus.

In Iowa, they have emphasized STEM with girls for a number of years. There is a concerted effort to spark interest among more girls to enter STEM fields and take STEM classes.

While there is a gender gap, albeit small (with the exception of SAT) in math. What is often ignored is the wider gender gap when it comes to reading.

Take a look at the 4th and 8th Grade NAEP scores for reading.


Unlike math, the gender gap grows as students get older and this time it is the girls’ favor, and things don’t improve in 12th-grade either where the average gap is 10 points.

What’s being done about that?

In the PISA assessment among 15-year-olds in the United States, there isn’t much of a gap between girls and boys in science. In 2006 they tied. Boys had a higher average score in 2009 and 2015. In 2012, girls had a slightly higher advantage.


If you look at NAEP scores for science you find that in 4th-grade there is no significant difference at all. As kids get older boys tend to score better on physical science, earth and space science. With life sciences, there are no significant differences between the two.

Then you have to consider that women are the majority on college campuses and that has been the norm since 1980. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that women will make up 57 percent of college students by 2026. Male high school graduates are simply less apt to enroll in college than female high school graduates.

As much as our culture likes to downplay it there are differences between boys and girls and some of that plays out at school in academic interests and career pursuits. They also process things differently.

This doesn’t mean girls can’t do well in STEM or shouldn’t be encouraged to go into those fields, we should, but we can’t overlook where boys struggle. How do we spark in boys a love for reading? What is going on with boys and their lack of interest in college?

While the gender gap is something to address, I’m far more concerned with stagnant assessment scores overall (state-level, NAEP, etc.) and the widening achievement gap between white students and black students.

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