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SAT scores and constraint vs. risk-taking - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2008-08-16 10:46
SAT scores and constraint vs. risk-taking
Public
childhood, feminism, gender
ADDENDUM to the previous post on alleged gender differences (that I meant to post yesterday but didn't have time):

At bab5 eight days ago we also talked about a recent study finding that the gender difference in math SAT scores has all but disappeared, at least for the average, which I take as further evidence that the difference could well be due to social factors. Text of the article below for those who don't have BugMeNot.

Interestingly, the variance in scores is higher for boys, which reminded me of research done on how parents, teachers, and others tend to constrain and control girls' actions more than others, for a variety of reasons. For instance, boys are on average allowed to roam much farther from their parents at parks and playgrounds; are allowed out on their own at an earlier age and with fewer restrictions; and are generally allowed to be more boisterous and "take up more space" in the classroom and at home. This translates into a culture condoning more risk-taking for boys generally, in all areas of their lives, from academics to sports to "acting out" (I certainly knew many more boys who were class clowns or delinquents than girls). I'm only somewhat familiar with the literature on this but I really should be more familiar, and likely will be in the next couple of years.

I have a hunch that some of these constraints on girls relate to societal fears that are largely focused on girls. These fears follow the "security theater" model of overreacting to a highly publicized event involving an action (such as stranger abduction or sexual assault) that is actually exceedingly rare (most abductions and assaults are by family or acquaintances). Certainly the law is strongly geared toward these rare, but highly publicized, cases: child sexual assault parolees in California must wear a GPS tracker and must stay more than 2000 feet from schools, parks, and other places with children, even though most of those cases involved a known child and the tracking system does nothing to keep them away from the children of family members or friends (though, of course, the stigma of having a GPS tracker may well give the signal by itself). Paul Dourish and some of his students are doing research on the social and privacy implications of this GPS tracking of parolees, since it's one of the few places where surveillance has reached such invasive levels.

Also, as an aside, I know I tend to focus on "boys and girls" and don't include other sex options very well (though I try to be better about gender orientations). I've heard about the pitfalls of this, but at the same time, so much of my research and social commentary focuses around people's beliefs about the world, and the gender binary is certainly a strong societal norm (and one with actual basis in genetics, at least for mammals). I know I'm reinforcing these things by taking them for granted, but really, if I tried to write in a completely socially-aware way, I'd just never get around to writing because being thorough in that way is damn hard and very daunting. So sorry, but I'm afraid you'll just have to deal.


The SAT scores article:

By David Malakoff
ScienceNOW Daily News
24 July 2008

Zip. Zilch. Nada. There's no real difference between the scores of U.S. boys and girls on common math tests, according to a massive new study. Educators hope the finding will finally dispel lingering perceptions that girls don't measure up to boys when it comes to crunching numbers.

"This shows there's no issue of intellectual ability--and that's a message we still need to get out to some of our parents and teachers," says Henry "Hank" Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, Virginia.

It won't be a new message. Nearly 20 years ago, a large-scale study led by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found a "trivial" gap in math test scores between boys and girls in elementary and middle school. But it did suggest that boys were better at solving more complex problems by the time they got to high school.

Now, even that small gap has disappeared, Hyde reports in tomorrow's issue of Science. Her team sifted through scores from standardized tests taken in 2005, 2006, and 2007 by nearly 7 million students in 10 states. Overall, the researchers found "no gender difference" in scores among children in grades two through 11. Among students with the highest test scores, the team did find that white boys outnumbered white girls by about two to one. Among Asians, however, that result was nearly reversed. Hyde says that suggests that cultural and social factors, not gender alone, influence how well students perform on tests.

Another portion of the study did confirm that boys still tend to outscore girls on the mathematics section of the SAT test taken by 1.5 million students interested in attending college. In 2007, for instance, boys' scores were about 7% higher on average than girls'. But Hyde's team argues that the gap is a statistical illusion, created by the fact that more girls take the test. "You're dipping farther down into the distribution of female talent, which brings down the score," Hyde says. It's not clear that statisticians at the College Board, which produces the SAT, will agree with that explanation. But Hyde says it's good news, because it means the test isn't biased against girls.

The study's most disturbing finding, the authors say, is that neither boys nor girls get many tough math questions on state tests now required to measure a school district's progress under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. Using a four-level rating scale, with level one being easiest, the authors said that they found no challenging level-three or -four questions on most state tests. The authors worry that means that teachers may start dropping harder math from their curriculums, because "more teachers are gearing their instruction to the test."

The results "essentially confirm" earlier studies--and they should finally put to rest the idea that girls aren't going into technical fields because they can't do the math, says Ann Gallagher, a psychologist who studies testing at the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pennsylvania. But she still thinks there may be cultural or psychological reasons for why girls still tend to lag behind boys on high-stakes tests such as the SAT. Among students she's observed, she says "the boys tend to be a little more idiosyncratic in solving problems, the girls more conservative in following what they've been taught."
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-16 20:35 (UTC)
(no subject)
This shows there's no issue of intellectual ability--and that's a message we still need to get out to some of our parents and teachers,

Actually, it doesn't. It's a reassuring piece of work in that it says that cultural and social factors dominate any genetic factors, but that shouldn't be that surprising when looking at overall means.

But if means are equal but standard deviations are greater for boys, then the higher up you go in mathematical ability (and the lower down), the more the group will be disproportionately boys, so it doesn't put to rest the idea that you "should" see more math PhDs going to men than to women.

As far as risk-taking is concerned, note that risk-taking behavior is more evolutionarily beneficial for men than for women. I wonder if this is part of the reason why risk taking is encouraged more in boys than in girls.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2008-08-16 21:14 (UTC)
(no subject)
Evolutionarily beneficial according to whom, and according to what version of early humans' living habits? Given the *very* incomplete and uncertain evidence we have on early humans' living habits (and how our stories about them then become a reflection of current cultural values and norms), I just can't take any evolutionary biology arguments seriously.
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-16 22:53 (UTC)
(no subject)
I spoke way too casually. What I should have said is that there's a greater variance in men's payoffs. I don't think that by itself doesn't mean men should risk more.

As for the evolutionary biology arguments--yeah, it's a problem. It's way too easy to make stuff up about how early humans behaved and draw the picture that ends up at the picture one wanted in the first place. It ends up being a Just-So story.

But, I do think it's possible to at least think of likely evolutionary pressure without being entirely misled. It seems a common theme in the human cultures that I've seen that one privilege of high-ranking males is sex with many females. (Including ours. Rockstars do not lack for bed partners.) There's lots of incentive to be one of those high-ranking males. Given that this seems to be common across many cultures, I would guess that early humans were this way too.

Even if you look at the historical period only, one estimate says that Genghis Khan is a direct patrilineal ancestor of 0.5% of the world's population. That's a pretty big win for him, and a man's DNA would be willing to risk much to be the next Khan. I can't think of a historical woman who could plausibly be the direct ancestor of so many (except Khan's momma).
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-16 23:58 (UTC)
(no subject)
And, of course, even if there is an evolutionary advantage to more risky behavior in men, it wouldn't necessarily imply that men exhibit more risky behavior.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 19:23 (UTC)
(no subject)
Although old Chingis, as we used to call him, is perhaps a direct patrilineal ancestor of only 0.5% of the world's male population, he's probably a direct ancestor of something more like 98%. There are a large number of both women and men in history who can make the same claim, although maybe most of them are a bit further back in history. (Also, they can't actually make a lot of claims about anything, since they're all dead.)

Chingis's mom, obviously, is not a patrilineal ancestor of anyone, including Chingis himself.
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-18 01:21 (UTC)
(no subject)
I'm surprised it's as high as 98%, given the geographical isolation of various population groups of humans.

But anyway, in case I didn't make sense, my point was it's probably the case that a human male's actions can result in a much greater number of descendants than a human female's actions.

I pointed out Chingis as an example because:
(1) We have some measure his overall reproductive success (by looking at the number of men with his Y chromosome, we can see that his total number of descendants is quite high).
(2) He's the person to whom you can attribute his gene's success. By leading the Mongol hoard, he got his genes out there. Chingis's mom had at least as many descendants as Chingis, but while she probably played an important role in keeping Chingis from dying young, her role in making those genes show up everywhere was much less than Chingis's role.
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Robynne
corpsefairy
2008-08-18 18:16 (UTC)
(no subject)
I think the point of the "Gengis Khan has lots of descendants" idea is less that Khan was so virile and more that anyone living that far back will have a lot of descendants. Khan is just a convenient and funny example.
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-18 19:06 (UTC)
(no subject)
I think the point of the "Gengis Khan has lots of descendants" idea is less that Khan was so virile and more that anyone living that far back will have a lot of descendants. Khan is just a convenient and funny example.

No. I should have spoken more carefully, though, as I don't just mean "Khan has lots of descendants" but rather "Khan's genetic contribution to the current generation is high." Being descended on both sides from Khan is twice as good in my measure.

Patrilineal descent is a convenient way to measure this impact because a person only has one patrilineal ancestor per generation. So, yes, it's true that anyone who lived in Khan's time who has descendants probably has lots of them. But 8% of males over a fairly wide area are direct patrilineal descendants of him. If Khan isn't unusual, then there were roughly ~20 men of Khan's time left any significant number of patrilineal descendants today. I'm pretty sure there were more than 20 men around.

Now, you could say it was his dad, or his granddad who was really responsible for the spread, but that seems less plausible given the wide area over which Khan's patrilineal descendants are found. You might also argue that Khan's Y chromosome was very common already, but given that there are mutations and so forth, you'd again have to ask how it got spread around so much. Khan's not-so-friendly actions goes a long way towards explaining how it became common.
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rubrick
rubrick
2008-08-17 03:05 (UTC)
(no subject)
, I just can't take any evolutionary biology arguments seriously.

I hope this is an exaggeration. Trying to understand humans (or any other species) outside of the context of evolution is like trying to study astronomy outside the context of physics. Whether you agree with a particular evolutionary biology argument, and whether you think it's well-supported by evidence and solid reasoning, is one thing; but not taking the field seriously is, I think, a big mistake.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 19:18 (UTC)
(no subject)
It's like trying to study astronomy outside the context of physics in the year 1600. At the time, people who tried to study astronomy inside the context of physics were coming up with explanations involving crystal spheres for the planets, and the fixed stars staying up because the element of fire naturally seeks its place above the element of air. By contrast, Kepler, who was studying astronomy outside the context of physics, discovered extremely accurate heliocentric numerical approximations to the paths of the planets, which eventually formed the basis for Newton's work.

The trouble with evolutionary psychology today is that, as far as I can tell, our theory of evolution is not yet capable of making the kinds of quantitative predictions that Newton's theory of physics makes, at least in the realm of psychology. (It does make some kinds of quantitative predictions about differences in genotypes, but cannot generally extend them to phenotypic variation; counterexamples are welcome.) As a result, one can usually find plausible ev-psych explanations both for an actually observed phenomenon (say, a gender difference or gender similarity) and for its exact opposite, rendering the theory of no predictive value.

I'm a little reluctant to post this, because I'm aware that the same criticism could be leveled at quantum physics as it's presented in pop-science treatments, and my knowledge of ev-psych is mostly drawn from similarly nonrigorous explanations. The difference is that, as far as I can tell, there isn't a corresponding more-rigorous ev-psych literature that the fluffy treatments are covering up.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2008-08-17 20:54 (UTC)
(no subject)
What I meant by "evolutionary biology" in this case is actually a lot more specific (I probably should have come up with another term, but I was typing during a talk and was a bit distracted) -- I'm referring to the arguments that don't involve any actual evidence but generally go something like "we could explain (and maybe even condone) this (often odious) aspect of human behavior if we imagine that we lived in this kind of prehistoric culture ..."
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rubrick
rubrick
2008-08-18 02:07 (UTC)
(no subject)
That's sort of what I figured. I think "pop evolutionary psychology" might be near the mark.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 19:38 (UTC)
(no subject)
“Evolutionarily beneficial” doesn't actually mean “beneficial”; it just means “tending to promote the increased frequency of your genes”.

It's generally true across mammals, and to a lesser extent across sexually-reproducing creatures in general, that female fecundity has a much smaller range than male fecundity. It doesn't matter how many slaves a queen keeps in her harem; she's only going to have a maximum of perhaps 12–20 children, and that only at great cost to other aspects of her life. But a king can impregnate a new concubine every few days, if he can get away with keeping a few hundred concubines, and there are historical examples of men with thousands of children.

Baumeister's “Is There Anything Good About Men?” says that, at the other end of the scale, “Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men. I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.”
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 19:44 (UTC)
(no subject)
Hundreds, not thousands.
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-16 22:57 (UTC)
(no subject)
I was taking chimerically's word for it that the variance was higher for boys than for girls. If the distributions are normal distributions, if the means are the same and the distribution for men has a larger standard deviation than women, what I said holds.

As for the Asian vs. White difference, I would guess that the "highest scoring" groups as determined by this study are not really that many standard deviations away from the mean, and so the effect of the variance difference (if any) is relatively small.

Edited at 2008-08-16 10:57 pm (UTC)
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-17 03:16 (UTC)
(no subject)
But the result of Asians at the 99th percentile and the 95th percentile is weird.

I was going to agree with this, but then it occurred to me that a difference between 95 percentile and 99th percentile may not represent mathematical ability. Unless they've changed the test since my day, even the hardest questions aren't actually that difficult, so I'd guess that the difference between 95th and 99th percentile has more to do with test-taking style than straight mathematical ability.

there is a strong element of culture in math test scores.

This I agree with. My original point was that the culturally induced variation seems too strong to use this study to conclude there are no biological differences. What it shows is that when considering people graduating highschool and applying to college, any sex-based biological differences in mathematics ability play a negligible role in any math performance gap.(*)

(*) If girls are out performing boys elsewhere (ie, verbal) but are only equal at math, it would change the picture somewhat.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 19:50 (UTC)
(no subject)
Yes, girls slightly outperform boys on verbal tests, and have done so reliably on a variety of tests for some decades at least.
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Kris
anemone
2008-08-18 01:58 (UTC)
(no subject)
Then it's all kinds of hokey to conclude that there's no sex-based differences in mathematical ability because boy's scores and girl's scores even out.

But in general, I think the question of whether there are sex-based differences gets too much attention. We know that sex-based differences in cognition, if they exist, are small compared to the variance within the sexes. We have evidence that cultural factors have a big effect. Those two facts give us all the information we need for most practical purposes.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 20:51 (UTC)
(no subject)
I would like a copy!
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2008-08-17 20:56 (UTC)
(no subject)
Sure, I'd love a copy -- thanks!
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Jeff
lbchewie
2008-08-17 02:33 (UTC)
(no subject)
Who/what is bab5? Your recent posts involving conversations that arise from them are very intriguing. Are they local to any one community? If I could join, I'd be interested in learning the details.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2008-08-17 20:53 (UTC)
(no subject)
Bab5 is a group of people who meet every Thursday in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of the people who posted to this thread, other than you, are members, although anemone and I have moved away from the area and so aren’t there much.
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