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March 28, 2017

Girls do better at reading, boys do better at math? It’s not that simple!

A German study shows that the influence of gender on students’ academic achievement varies with social background. Hence, general statements regarding the educational success of boys or girls as such fall short.

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Boys are more likely to repeat a school year than girls and less likely to obtain a higher education entry qualification. Girls on the other hand perform poorer in mathematics. Data from the German Federal Statistical Office as well as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) seem to be speaking a clear language, and public opinion is therefore often quick to judge. Time and again, we hear about “boys’ underachievement in education” or that “mathematics is not for girls”. “However, boys and girls do not represent two homogeneous groups”, argues Josefine Lühe, educational researcher, who has conducted a study on this subject together with other researchers from the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF). Their results show the influence of gender on academic achievement to vary among German primary school students depending on social background. Caution should thus be observed with respect to generalized statements on the link between gender and achievement.

So far there is only little systematic knowledge regarding the reciprocal effects between social background and gender on students’ academic achievement. This gap in research is addressed by Ms. Lühe and her colleagues, Dr. Michael Becker, Dr. Marko Neumann and Professor Dr. Kai Maaz. They analysed data from 3,935 sixth grade students from 87 public primary schools in Berlin. These data had been assessed in the context of the BERLIN study, a long-term monitoring project that evaluates the structural reform of Berlin’s secondary school system. The researchers focused on the outcomes of achievement tests in reading, mathematics and English as a second language and the students’ socioeconomic status (SES, assessed in parent questionnaires). The team then applied statistical regression analyses to determine relationships between variables.

At first glance, the findings confirm common prejudices according to which girls perform better in reading and in English, while boys do better in mathematics. “However, the gender effect is moderated by the socioeconomic status of the boys and girls”, Ms. Lühe points out. This means that gender-related differences in achievement vary according to social background – in all of the three areas assessed. And: the relationship between social background and achievement is stronger for boys than for girls. Their level of achievement rises more strongly given a higher socioeconomic status and decreases more recognisably given a lower socioeconomic status.

So far, the analyses do not allow for any further explanations of these effects. However, the researchers indicate that social stereotypes may come into effect. For example, the idea that academically oriented behaviour is “not masculine” may be more common in lower-SES families. The analyses would need to be further enhanced by including rural areas or children from other age groups, education systems and federal states in order to determine such hypotheses. One practical implication can, however, be determined now, says Ms. Lühe: “The findings of our study suggest that it would be better to refrain from endorsing stereotypical ideas concerning boys’ and girls’ achievement when it comes to developing and implementing educational measures to foster children’s interest and achievement.”

The study is described in detail in a contribution to the journal “Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft“ (in German): bit.ly/Leistungsunterschiede_Geschlecht_soziale_Herkunft



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