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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Girls outpace boys on tests

In the state of Illinois...
Girls gained the most ground last year, immediately after the state revamped the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The state made the tests more colorful, gave pupils extra time to finish, added questions with longer reading passages and replaced state-created test items with those pulled from a national bank of questions.

In 3rd-grade reading, the gap between girls and boys, which had hovered between 5 and 6 percentage points for five years, shot up to 8.6 after the changes. On the 4th-grade science exam, girls outpaced boys for the first time in five years.

Those gaps remained relatively static this year, when no changes were made to the state.

If tinkering with the exams caused the shift, it raises questions about the validity of the tests and the decisions that are made based on the test results. Schools are judged -- and can be punished -- according to how well students perform on the exams.

"It's important to recognize that very subtle changes in tests can have quite a significant impact on the relative performance of different groups," said Bob Schaeffer, of FairTest, a non-profit group that monitors the quality and gender-bias in achievement exams. "Because of the judgment calls that go into building exams, there is a fundamental squishiness to the results. You can make one small tinker and unwittingly propel girls, or boys, forward on paper, but not in true achievement levels."

The Tribune analysis was conducted as part of the release of the annual School Report Card data. The Tribune looked at the math, reading, writing and science results on the 3rd- through 8th-grade, and the 11th-grade exams students took in the spring.

The gender gaps, most pronounced among black and Hispanic students, exist at all grade levels and are largest in reading and writing.

On the 8th-grade writing exam, for example, girls scored 18 percentage points higher than boys. In 3rd-grade reading, girls bested boys by nearly 9 percentage points.

In math and science, girls outscored boys anywhere from 0.5 to 3.3 percentage points and, in math, the gap grows wider as students age. By 8th grade, girls were scoring 3.2 percentage points higher than boys.

Some of the differences reverse themselves at high school. Boys continue to outperform girls in math and science on the 11th-grade Prairie State Achievement Exam. Unlike the state elementary school exam, there have been no major changes to the state high school test.

That matches decades of national testing data, which have shown that girls, in general, perform better on reading and writing exams, while boys do better in math and science. This also holds true for Illinois students on national elementary and high school exams.

Some researchers and educators attribute the variations in performance to the differences in the physical makeup of the male and female brains. But there is mounting evidence that the content and structure of achievement exams also plays a role.
My next question about this would boil down to race, and this excerpt I pulled answers that question. That's not to say this is an exclusively a black or Latino problem. There was a story about this on 60 Minutes a few years ago.

The question as always is what can we do about it? That's the question this article - where I pulled the excerpt- from the Tribune seeks to answer.

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