Boys and achievement

Simply put, girls are outperforming boys in nearly every test-subject-grade combination of Ohio’s standardized achievement tests. The table below shows that on 105 out of 145 comparisons of boys’ and girls’ proficiency rates, girls perform better. The data are sorted to compare proficiency rates (or, "pass" rates) by race, thus comparing, for example, Asian males to Asian females, Black males to Black females, et cetera.

The cells shaded in red indicate that girls outperform boys. The cells shaded in blue indicate that boys outperform girls. Darker shading indicates a greater gender difference.

We observe a whole lot of red (girls doing better), and not a lot of blue (boys doing better).

The gender gap is especially substantial in reading and writing. For example, girls' proficiency rates are 4.9 to 11.4 percentage points higher in 5th grade reading depending on race. In 10th grade writing, girls' proficiency rates are 5.1 to 14.0 percentage points higher.

Girls outperform boys: Percentage point difference in proficiency rates for girls and boys on Ohio’s standardized tests, by race - 2011-12

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education NOTE: Differences are shown in relation to girls’ proficiency rates (e.g., 6.9 indicates that girls’ proficiency rate is 6.9 percentage points higher than boys’). ODE reports proficiency rates greater than 95 percent as “>95”; in these cases (n=11, and all occur in 11th and 12th grade), 95 percent was imputed.

A few additional items of note include:

  • Of the subjects tested, boys are most likely to outperform girls in science;
  • Girls and boys are closer to parity in math than reading and writing;
  • Of all racial groups, Black males underperform their female peers most, and especially so in reading and writing (over 10 percentage points in some instances).

My working hypothesis for now is that school culture tilts toward favoring girls over boys. This may include anything from how discipline is handled—the New York Times reports that boys, especially Black boys, generally face the harshest disciplinary measures. It could be that the disproportionate number of female teachers hinders boys’ learning. Thomas Dee makes this argument in Education Next, suggesting that “if half the English teachers in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades were male . . . the achievement gap [between boys and girls] would fall by approximately a third by the end of middle school.” Or, perhaps boys, who are particularly prone to being identified as “special needs,” lose some of the educational opportunities that general-ed students have.

Or, maybe it’s just a fact that when it comes to schooling, “boys will be boys”—and at the end of the day, boys are by nature not so bright.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is a Ohio Research Director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute