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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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2008-08-17 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
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
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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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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