In the classroom, girls typically score higher than boys with the same academic ability, a new study shows.
Researchers in Italy, based on surveys of tens of thousands of students and their teachers, have determined that this is a systemic problem and have begun a theoretical analysis of its causes.
Their work, published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, suggests that teachers may subconsciously reward students who exhibit traditionally female behaviours, such as being quiet and neat, which make their lives easier.
Another theory is that inflating math grades is a way of trying to encourage girls, who are often seen as weaker in the subject.
The researchers warn that this bias against boys could mean the difference between passing and failing, and could have wider implications in areas such as college admissions, job choices and earnings.
“There is a strong correlation between achieving higher grades and desirable educational outcomes, such as being less likely to be accepted into or drop out of a good college,” says Ilaria Lievore.
How is the research conducted?
The researchers, based at the University of Trento, started their work based on test results that showed standardized test scores were inconsistent with those awarded by teachers.
Girls generally outperform boys on tests of humanities, language and reading, while boys do better in maths.
However, when teachers scored grades, girls did better in all subjects.
The researchers compared the scores of 38,957 10th graders on standardized tests of language and math with their grades on classroom tests.
Standardized tests are set nationally and graded anonymously, while classroom tests are set in the classroom and graded by teachers.
Consistent with previous research, girls outperformed boys on standardized tests of language, while boys led in mathematics.
But teachers let the girls lead in both subjects. The average language score for girls is 6.6 out of 10 and for boys it is 6.2. In mathematics, girls’ average was 6.3, while boys’ average was 5.9, below the passing grade of 6.
The analysis also showed that when boys and girls were similar in ability in a subject, girls generally achieved higher grades.
What could be behind the achievement gap?
The researchers looked at many factors, from school type to class size.
They also took into account the characteristics of teachers, such as their experience and gender.
The only factor found to be influential was mathematics. Gender gaps in achievement are greater when class sizes are larger, and girls are found to be ahead of boys in technical and academic schools.
None of the other factors had any significant effect on closing the gender score gap, leading researchers to warn of systemic problems.