Here’s a report from the Daily Mail: “Oxford University extends time for maths and computer science exams in bid to help women get better grades.”
Oxford University has extended time for maths and computer science exams in a bid to help women get better grades.
Undergraduates were given 105 minutes to complete their papers, rather 90.
There was no change in difficulty or the length of questions and female students were said to do better as a result. . . .
The proposals were put forward to reduce the ‘undue effects of time pressure’ which the prestigious university believe effects women more than men, reports the Sunday Times. . . .
A document obtained by the Times, under Freedom of Information laws, showed that faculty at the university believed the changes could: ‘mitigate the… gender gap that has arisen in recent years, and in any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understanding and not a time trial.’
This is consistent with a claim I read in a book, The Math Myth, by Andrew Hacker, something over a year ago, that boys do better than girls on the math SAT, not because they are, on average, “better at math” but because they are better at test-taking — that is, at the risk-taking involved in taking a timed test in which it’s not intended that a typical student would be able to work through all of the problems, when it’s necessary to strategize about when to skip, when to guess, when to take shortcuts.
Here’s what Hacker says:
Given their affinity for speed, boys start by sizing up multiple-choice questions with a quick glance. The Educational Testing Service, which runs the SAT, found that boys save time by mental strategies “that enable them to see the solution without actually working out the problem.” As a result, they show less hesitation about racing ahead. And this usually pays off, since the SAT format doesn’t ask or care how you got to your answer. Another tactic that comes more readily to boys is to eliminate, say, three of the options as plainly wrong, and then guess between the remaining two. This willingness to gamble shaves the odds in their favor. Another ETS study was even more revealing. It found that because girls spend much more time pondering, they are measurably more likely than boys to leave some questions blank, and hence fail to reach the end. In all instances, girls’ greater penchant for reflection undercuts their scores.
So, on the one hand, I will freely admit that these supposedly boy-specific talents at test-taking are something that I’ve been blessed with, and it’s taken me pretty far in life, what with a test-based college scholarship, and later, the actuarial exams. But there is a valid concern here: a test which is intentionally too short to complete all of the test items will not measure subject matter knowledge, or, at any rate, will muddy that measurement with the assessment of test-taking talents. And, while there is a value to the sort of quick decision-making that is tested in these environments, most of the time, in the real world, one needs not just speed but accuracy, and usually accuracy matters more than speed. Heck, none of my test-taking skills have helped me conquer the need for greater attention to detail at work.
So does this mean that boys’ apparent greater math skill is a mirage? Perhaps it’s just that the gap isn’t as wide as the SAT scores suggest. But as a mom of three boys, each of whom has struggles in one form or another, and knowing that, in general, boys are struggling in various ways*, it worries me. If the narrative is shifting from “boys are better at math and science, girls are better at reading and writing” to “girls are better at everything, and are just being held back by sexism,” then boys will be doubly-disadvantaged, both by the deficits that they do struggle with, and by the focus on girls’ achievement. And it’s a pattern we see repeated: where boys do better, policymakers want to fix the gap; where girls do better, the Experts say “girls rule, boys drool,” and move on.
* See “From the library: Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax” for my summary of a book documenting the various ways in which boys are struggling, “From the Library: Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System that’s Leaving Them Behind, by Richard Whitmire” for a summary of a book focusing specifically on the ways boys are falling behind in school (largely, the fact that literacy skills are now front-and-center), and an older post on some of the “wage gap” statistics.
Image: from Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/15344079560