How Well Are American Students Learning? Part I: Girls, Boys, and Reading

Here’s a fascinating data point: Did you know that the entire weight of Finnish superiority on international reading tests rests on the shoulders of that country’s girls? The reading scores of Finnish boys on PISA tests is not statistically different than those of American boys, or even the average U.S. student of either sex—that’s how wide the gender gap is in Finland. “Finnish superiority in reading only exists in females,” writes Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tom Loveless in what is surely the most eyebrow-raising finding in the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education. “If Finland were only a nation of young men,” he observes, “its PISA ranking would be mediocre.”

That girls outscore boys on reading tests is not news. What is surprising is just how profound and persistent are the gaps. Boys lag girls in every country in the world and at every age, and they have for quite some time. But the gender gap on the 2012 PISA in Finland, the global education superstar, is the widest in the world and twice that of the United States. The sober and precise Loveless can barely restrain himself. “Think of all the commentators who cite Finland to promote particular policies, whether the policies address teacher recruitment, amount of homework, curriculum standards, the role of play in children’s learning, school accountability, or high stakes assessments,” he writes. “Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland’s high PISA scores…the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland’s school population that happens to be male?” Now that you mention it, Tom, no. No I haven’t. 

That’s not the only shibboleth the report dismantles. Everybody knows that the best way to improve reading scores is to ensure that kids love to read. Except the data say that’s not true. Loveless’s analysis of PISA results shows no correlation between countries that have raised boys’ reading enjoyment from 2000 to 2009 and those that have raised boys’ reading achievement over the same period of time. So what is the cause of the global gender gap? Is it biology? School practices? Cultural influences? Whatever it is, it appears not to be immutable, since the gap has been shrinking on U.S. NAEP tests. At age nine, it’s less than half of what it was forty years ago. “Biology doesn’t change that fast,” Loveless dryly notes. 

And a final mystery, perhaps the most confounding of all: Whatever the cause of the global gender gap in reading in school-aged children, it seems to vanish entirely among adults. After the age of thirty-five, men have statistically higher reading scores; by age 55, men remain stronger readers, even though adult women are nearly twice as likely to be avid readers. 

SOURCE: Tom Loveless, “2015 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?: Part I: Girls, Boys, and Reading,” the Brookings Institution (March 2015). 

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.