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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
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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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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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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
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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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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