Saturday, November 30, 2013

PISA Test – Gender Differences in Reading, Math and Science

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (also known as PISA) is held every three years and in 2012 tens of thousands of 15-year-olds from 65 countries took part, including Qatar. This was Qatar’s third time participating in PISA and the results from the 2012 test will be available in a few days.

When I discussed the 2009 results I caused a bit of controversy in some East Asian forums by challenging the seemingly incredible results posted by Shanghai (here and here) but surprisingly there wasn't much of an issue with Qatar’s very low scores. Qatar did show some improvement between 2006 and 2009 and I sure hope that progress continues because right now Qatar’s scores are very low given the overall wealth of the country. Qataris I spoke to about the 2009 results were not surprised in the least and were generally cynical about the overall quality of the educational system. Plenty of reforms have been underway, and the Supreme Education Council has been doing the right thing by not trying to hide or downplay the PISA scores, even going so far as to post the PISA scores of individual schools.

While I was checking to see if the 2012 results were out I happened to come across a great analysis by the OCED where they take the 2009 results for each country and analyze them by various factors, including gender. I found the gender results to be the most interesting.

If you would like to see the results yourself, go to the following link and click on Table B1, which will then upload an excel spreadsheet with tons of tables and analysis.

With 66 countries participating in 2009 here’s the results:

Reading (Table I.2.3)

In every single country, girls had better reading scores than boys. The difference was statistically significant in every country whether it was in Europe, North America, East Asia, the Middle East, wherever. I was not expecting the results to be so consistent across the world, and while I have no definitive answer for why this would be the consistency across numerous cultures and peoples would seem to indicate that there is a biological component to it. Is the area of the brain that handles reading better developed in 15-year-old girls than boys? Are hormones playing a role?

Mathematics (Table I. 3.3)

Unlike the reading scores for math boys generally performed better than girls. In all OECD countries boys’ scores were either better or the same as girls – girls did not perform statistically better in any OECD nation. In 23 of 36 OECD nations the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores was statistically significant.

Things get interesting when we look at the non-OECD countries. In a handful of those countries girls performed statistically better.

There might be a cultural component. I analyzed it by geographic region and bizarrely:

1. In Scandinavia girls performed the same as boys (except in Denmark)
2. In former Soviet-bloc countries it was also more even, in 9 of 13 countries there was no statistical significance between girls and boys
3. However in the rest of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand boys were resoundingly better, being statistically better in 16 of 18 countries. In none of these countries were girls statistically better than boys.
4. In East Asia boys and girls were even in 6 out of 9 countries, with boys better in the remaining three.
5. Qatar was one of the few countries where girls scored statistically better than boys (the others: Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Peru, and Trinidad & Tobago)

Why is there such a discrepancy in places like UK, US, Canada, Germany, France and Australia, when in other parts of the world it appears to be a bit more even? Does it have something to do with that prevalent myth that “girls can't do math?” Does that attitude exist in places like Germany and France? Why are girls so much better in reading but lose ground in math? These are the sorts of things that I hope educational researchers are looking at.

Science (Table I.3.6)

Of the three categories science had the least variation between boys and girls in OCED countries. Of the 35 OECD countries boys were statistically better in 9, girls were statistically better in 5, and in the remaining 21 countries there was no difference.

Things are a little more varied in the non-OECD nations and the differences in terms of absolute results were also larger than in the OCED nations. Surprisingly, of the 31 nations boys were statistically better in only 2, girls were statistically better in 16 (wow!), and in the remaining 13 countries there was no difference.

Where did boys perform better? Pretty much Western Europe, North America and South America. If we count Scandinavia as separate from Western Europe then Denmark is the outlier as the only country not in the above regions where boys were better than girls. In Finland girls were better and there was no statistical difference in the remaining Scandinavian countries.

In every Soviet-bloc country girls either performed the same as boys or better than the boys.

Interestingly girls performed statistically better than boys in 9 out of 10 countries with a predominantly Muslim population (an argument could be made that Qatar and Dubai do not have a predominantly Muslim population in which case girls performed better in 7 out of 8 Muslim countries). In terms of the difference in absolute scores the greatest differences were in the Muslim countries so not only did girls perform better than boys in Muslim nations, the differences were the greatest.

The PISA website has all sorts of other studies and analysis so I recommend anyone interested in education to look through the papers.

PISA 2012 results are due out in less than a week. Here's hoping Qatar has continued to improve.

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