Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Despite Strong ISTEP+ Scores, Indiana Girls’ Scores Trail Boys On College Prep Tests

Students in Wes Upton's social studies class at Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center in Indianapolis discuss a reading on trench warfare in World War I.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Students in Wes Upton's social studies class at Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center in Indianapolis discuss a reading on trench warfare in World War I.

With women earning more college degrees than men and girls earning better grades in elementary school these days, we’re more likely to encounter writers puzzling over how boys can catch up.

Which makes one of this report’s findings a little surprising: on Advanced Placement tests and most sections of the ACT and SAT exams, Indiana high school girls’ scores lag behind those of Indiana boys.

But the report, released Thursday by faculty and student researchers at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., also shows younger girls score as well as or better than boys on the ISTEP+, Indiana’s benchmark standardized test for elementary and middle school students.

Though the researchers don’t offer a definitive explanation for the test score trend, the “Status of Girls in Indiana” report shows young women are more likely than boys to be dealing with a number of physical and mental health problems.

In short, as the Indiana Commission for Women executive director Kristin Garvey told the Indianapolis Star, “There’s a lot going on with adolescent girls.”

A chart showing the relative performance on Advanced Placement exams by gender. High school students sitting for AP tests receive scores on a five-point scale. A three or better is considered "passing."

Screenshot / St. Mary's College

A chart showing the relative performance on Advanced Placement exams by gender. High school students sitting for AP tests receive scores on a five-point scale. A three or better is considered "passing."

One key quote from the 60-page report:

Even though more girls sat for AP exams in Indiana in 2012, boys tended to receive higher scores more often than their female peers. Approximately 13 percent of boys who sat for AP exams received a score of five compared to eight percent of girls. Roughly 14 percent of girls received a score of four in comparison to 17 percent of boys. In addition, 52 percent of boys who sat for AP exams received a passing score (score of three or higher) compared to 42 percent of girls taking an AP exam.

Indiana girls scored better than boys on the English section of the ACT exam and the Writing portion of the SAT. But on the math and science sections of both tests, Indiana boys scored better than girls. More from the report:

Indiana’s girls [scored] 39 points less, on average, than Indiana’s boys on the math section of the SAT. In addition, Indiana’s girls were at least 11 percent less likely to meet college benchmark scores for mathematics and science compared to boys in Indiana. In Fall 2007, the time that the class of 2012 last took the ISTEP+ (eighth grade), male and female performance on the math section of the ISTEP was relatively close: 74 percent of girls passed the math section compared to 73 percent of boys, with 20 percent of boys receiving pass+ ratings compared to 16 percent of girls. Historically, girls have been known to lose interest in math and science just as they are entering high school, which might explain the poor performance in math and science on the SAT and ACT. Teachers and administrators at Indiana’s schools should encourage girls to participate in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subject areas and encourage careers in mathematics and science.

Recent St. Mary’s graduate Gina Deom, who aided assistant professor Kristin Jehring Kuter in writing the report, told Indiana Public Media reporter Claire McInerny she hopes the report will lead to further research on the gender gap.

“Maybe girls aren’t getting the same encouragements that they’re getting at the elementary and middle school level for mathematics and science,” Deom says.

The report does outline other areas where girls are outpacing boys.

“Girls [are] more likely than boys in Indiana to pass foreign language and art AP exams,” the report reads.

We’re curious to know your thoughts: What do you think is the story behind these numbers? Why do young women out-score young men, go on to earn more college degrees than men, but still lag behind on most sections of the ACT and SAT?



  • Karynb9

    Well, if you have MORE girls than boys taking some of the exams, you’re likely testing more girls who aren’t going to do as well, thus bringing down the averages. That was always the claim that was rightfully made about Indiana’s average SAT score being much lower than the national average — we were testing LOTS of kids on the SAT, while other states had much smaller percentages of students taking it (and it’s not a “random sample,” so it’s fair to assume that those choosing to take the test were more likely to do well).

    However, since ISTEP is not an “optional” test, the 20% “Pass+” for boys on ISTEP Math vs. the 16% “Pass+” for girls is pretty significant. Getting a Pass+ on ISTEP Math is often an important piece of data used for identifying students for accelerated or honors math classes. If 20% of boys are deemed eligible to take Algebra as 8th graders (or even as 7th graders)…compared to only 16% of girls…you’ll start to see some lag in math classes that would start to show up on SAT/ACT and AP results in a few years.

    It would be interesting to see the percentage of girls who take 7th or 8th grade algebra in Indiana compared to the percentage of boys.

    With all of that being said though, I think biologists continue to make a fairly strong case for the fact that gender differences in verbal and non-verbal skills exist at a very young age. The average one-year-old girl says MANY more words than the average one-year-old boy. Girls are out-performing boys in verbal areas, like foreign languages and English/writing. I don’t know that we’re going to have much success defeating Mother Nature.

  • Miranda

    Certainly there are some innate differences between the sexes, but I worry that such a vast gap is the result of social conditioning. Anybody who has seen a few episodes of Jeopardy! will tell you that men typically win. Why? Not because men know more answers, but because men are quicker to press the buzzer, thereby affording themselves more opportunities to advance in the game. Growing up, boys are taught to take action, to go for it, whereas girls are expected to behave more cautiously. These lessons are not explicit, but are made up of countless tiny suggestions by parents, teachers, and other adults. It adds up. This is why teenage boys are likely to raise their hands in class, only to say “I forget,” when called on.
    Standardized tests, with their overwhelming series of multiple choice questions and their nerve-racking time limits, do not just cater to smart people; they cater to people who act quickly and confidently as well. It makes sense that prepubescent girls can compete fairly well with boys on such tests. At their age their femininity has not yet become a dominating part of their life, determining how they should behave, and they have not had sufficent exposure to society’s gender-based expectations for these to seriously affect them. But by high school, young women are different people. Girls who never used to doubt their intelligence now resign themselves to being ordinary, especially in fields typically viewed as “masculine,” such as math and science. This is why teenage girls tend to work harder in school — and therefore receive better grades — than boys: it is an act of compensation. And this is also why young women’s test scores are typically lower than those of young men.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »