UW Today

This is an archived article.

February 2, 1998

It doesn’t add up: First study of talented young mathematicians shows boys out-perform girls

There’s new evidence that when it comes to mathematics, the sexes apparently do not begin school on an equal footing.

In the first long-term study of mathematically precocious young children, researchers from the University of Washington have found si gnificantly more boys than girls with very high levels of math talents, and discovered that even when children are exposed to an enrichment program to foster their abilities, math-talented girls don’t catch up with their male counterparts in the first two years of school.

The researchers also discovered that girls and boys who show an early aptitude and interest in math are no “flash in the pan” whose interest wanes once they are in a formal classroom setting where other children are learning the basics .

“Children who have advanced math reasoning skills when they start school are likely to remain ahead compared to other children, and their skills didn’t decrease over the years we measured,” said Nancy Robinson, principal investigator of the study a nd director of the UW’s Halbert Robinson Center for the Study of Capable Youth.

Robinson said that the gender disparity was noted early on when Puget Sound-area youngsters in Washington state were being recruited as subjects for the study. A total of 7 78 preschool and kindergartners were nominated, primarily by parents, and special efforts were made to enlist girls. To be eligible for the study, children were required to score at or above the 98th percentile on at least one of three screening tests. Of the children screened, 348 qualified and 60 percent, or 210, were boys. A number of boys were randomly excluded to balance the gender makeup of the study. Eventually, 276 children — 148 boys and 128 girls — made it through the entire two-year study.

The gender disparity was apparent in another way. The very brightest of the bright mathemeticians tended to be boys. The top 5 percent of those selected for the study, using any of eight different measures, were virtually all boys.

“We hoped that the girls’ skill levels, as they got experience and encouragement in math, would pick up. But they didn’t catch up. The very top scorers tended to be boys, both before and after being given the enrichment program,” said Robinson.

“We don’t know how to explain this gender difference, ” she added. “It was already there when we started with these children. Once in school, it is possible that the boys were getting more attention from their teachers than girls. This is known both from other studies and from our own observations. Boys demand more attention by their classroom behavior — they are all over the place — while girls are quieter.”

Children in the study were ethnically diverse: 74 percent white, 15 percent Asian-American, 5 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 1 percent American Indian and 1 percent other. The children were randomly assigned to control or intervention groups. The youngsters in the control group were tested at the beginning of the study and then two years later.

Youngsters in the intervention group were placed in Saturday clubs which met for 2 1/2 hours about 28 times over two years. The clubs were designed to help the children see the world as a mathematical place and themselves as mathematicians. Among other things, the participants learned to see patterns and shapes in the world around them and how to transfer knowledge from one domain to another, such as taking a word problem and expressing it as an equation. These youngsters also were tested at the beginning and end of the study.

Robinson said the researchers were equally interested in the control group and emphasized that children with advanced math skills in both groups stayed ahead of or even increased their advancement in math compared to their classmates in school.

“Most likely, children with mathematical talent are receiving more individualized attention in the classroom than anyone previously thought, and these children are given opportunities to move ahead at their own pace in early elementary school. School may not be an exciting place, but it is not knocking the props out from under them.”

Other members of the research team conducting the study were Robert Abbott and Virginia Berninger, professors of educational psychology; Julie Busse, a graduate research assistant in educational psychology, and Swapna Mukhopadhyay, assistant professor of education. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
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For more information, contact Robinson at (206) 543-4160 or at capable@u.washington.edu.