Gender Differences in Educational Achievement
within Racial and Ethnic Groups. ERIC Digest.
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education
The effort to provide an equitable education to all students has led
to extensive research on the effects of racial and ethnic differences,
and of gender, on access, learning, and achievement. It has also led to
great debate about which student population has been most shortchanged,
with the argument about gender inequities perhaps most fierce. The impact
of ethnicity on gender differences had been only minimally considered by
researchers, however, until the Educational Testing Service (ETS) began
looking at the topic several years ago, first with a study on test taking
(Willingham & Cole, 1997) and now with a report on a variety of education
and employment measures (Coley, 2001).
The ETS publications, while demonstrating generally that there are "more
similarities than variations in gender differences among racial/ethnic
groups" (Coley, 2001, p. 3) present statistics showing some interesting
twists in the way the differences are manifested. They also raise some
questions about educational equity that transcend the issue of gender fairness.
Thus, as part of an ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education series consisting
of facts about specific student groups, this digest presents highlights
from the education findings in Richard Coley's Differences in the Gender
Gap: Comparisons Across Racial/Ethnic Groups in Education and Work.
National Assessment of Educational Progress
ETS's review (Coley, 2001) of gender differences in elementary and secondary
education within racial and ethnic groups covered student results on the
various tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
in several years over the last decade, administered to a nationally representative
sample of students at three grade or age levels. The gender gap varied
only slightly across the three years reviewed. These are the findings from
the most recently administered tests:
* Reading: Grades 4, 8, and 12: In 1998 females scored higher than males
across all racial and ethnic groups, with the gap widening for most groups
as the students progressed through school.
* Writing: Grades 4, 8, and 12: Again, females scored higher than males
across all racial and ethnic groups in 1998.
* Science. At age 9, there were no statistically significant score differences
in 1996 between males and females in all ethnic groups: black, Hispanic,
Asian/Pacific Islander, and white. At age 13, white males scored higher
than white females, while the other groups demonstrated no gender difference.
At age 17, white males again outscored white females, Hispanic males outscored
Hispanic females, and blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders still exhibited
no gender gap.
* Mathematics. At grade 4, white males scored higher than white females
in 1996; there was no gender difference within the other groups. At grades
8 and 12, no group demonstrated a gender gap.
The information about gender differences presented in the section below
on high school course taking is based on a sample of high school students
who intended to enroll in college; the findings, therefore, are not reflective
of the U.S. student population at large. The data on students in advanced
placement classes cover all high school students.
* High School Course Taking. Among high school students who took the
ACT college admissions test in 1999, more females than males in all racial
and ethnic groups (a difference of between 1 and 3 percentage points overall)
took a core college preparatory curriculum, with the greatest difference
between black males and females (a difference of 7 percentage points).
Similarly, among high school seniors who took the SAT I: Reasoning Test
for college admission in 1999, 55 percent of females and 46 percent of
males overall took 20 or more years of courses in six core academic subjects.
The gender difference was greater among American Indian, Asian/Pacific
Islander, and white students; smaller among Hispanics and blacks. The gender
gap in mathematics course taking has virtually closed for all groups except
Hispanics; Hispanic males still took more math than females but the difference
has been lessening over the last decade. The findings for natural science
course taking are similar. Further, among Hispanics (who are dis-aggregated
into three groups for this survey), the gap closed between Mexican males
and females; within the other two groups--Puerto Rican and Latin American,
South American, Central American, or Other Hispanic--more males than females
took four years of science.
* Advanced Placement. The Advanced Placement (AP) Program, which enables
high school students to take courses that earn college credits, has grown
dramatically. Moreover, student participation across all racial and ethnic
groups has increased in excess of group growth in the U.S. population at
large, most dramatically for Chicano/Mexican American females (308 percent).
White male participation has increased least (79 percent). Female participation
in the program is increasing, and the gender gap is widening; over the
last decade, across all ethnic groups, more females have taken AP examinations
than males. In 1999 the gap was greatest for blacks and least for whites,
American Indians, and Asians.
The male/female ratio differs substantially according to subject, however.
For example, males were overwhelmingly represented in computer science
and physics courses in 1999, while females were much more likely to take
French language and psychology courses. With regard to scores on AP examinations,
the gender differences across ethnicity varied considerably: there was
little gender difference in the English literature and composition exam
scores, but considerable difference in the scores for the biology and calculus
exams, with males scoring higher. The gap was greatest on the biology exam
* High School Completion. The overall high school completion rate for
adults age 25-29 was 88 percent in 1998, up from 38 percent in 1940, 75
percent in the '60s, and 85 percent at the end of the '70s. The rate in
1998 for females was 90 percent; for males, 87 percent.
Since the early 1980s, more white females than males completed four
or more years of high school. The trends for other racial and ethnic groups
have been less clear. Gender differences have shown little consistency
in the ratio of black males to females since 1974, with no difference at
all in 1998, when both males and females had an 88 percent completion rate.
For Hispanics, the pattern has also been erratic, but since the early 1980s
more females than males completed high school, and, in 1998, 66 percent
of females did so, as contrasted with 60 percent of males.
* Completion of Four Years of College. In 1998 the completion rate was
27 percent of all adults age 25-29, 29 percent of females, and 26 percent
of males. This rate compares with 6 percent in 1940 and 21 percent in 1974.
The increase for females over the past 25 years was very substantial--almost
12 percentage points--whereas the increase for males was only 2 percentage
points. Moreover, any previous male advantage--nearly none for blacks,
slight for Hispanics, and fairly large for whites--has been erased: black
females have a 3 percentage point advantage; Hispanic females, 2 percentage
points; and white females, 4 percentage points.
There is still a substantial race and ethnicity gap, however, with the
completion rate for whites at 28 percent; blacks, 16 percent; and Hispanics,
The issue of gender difference in academic outcomes, as demonstrated
by Coley's analysis reported above (as well as his additional findings
on employment and earnings not summarized in this digest), is quite complicated.
The lack of conclusive findings about a gender gap in achievement, as measured
by standardized tests, suggests that there is no systematic disenfranchisement
of students of either sex, although traditional gender differences in both
course selection and subject-specific achievement persist. Differences
in educational access and attainment among students of different ethnicity
and races are more clear cut, however. Whites are still far more likely
to take college preparatory courses in high school and to complete college,
and thus to have advantages that other students do not have.
Efforts to ensure the fairness of some measures, such as standardized
tests, in determining the knowledge and skills of all students have increased
in recent years. Nevertheless, student differences--the result of the interplay
of numerous factors, including but not limited to gender, race, and ethnicity--inevitably
render some tests unfair to some students at some times. Further, even
standardized tests intended to measure specific student outcomes fairly
may not render an accurate assessment of a student's overall competency
in general or his or her full mastery of the subject tested. Therefore,
to increase the likelihood that the assessment of each student will be
fair, and will reflect the student's performance as it relates to overall
educational objectives, several different types of measures should be used
and considered together (Willingham & Cole, 1997).
While attempts are being made to eliminate educational inequities, the
findings in the two ETS studies suggest that more intensive effort is needed,
particularly with black and Hispanic males whose lag behind females in
college completion is notable. In addition, since males and females are
still choosing courses in sexually stereotyped ways, limiting their higher
education and career options, all students need to be helped to make their
selections with a more open mind. Thus, while educators need to take remedial
action when a preponderance of students in a single ethnic or gender group
are lagging behind students in other groups, it is perhaps even more important
for them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of students individually.
Such personal attention can help ensure that each can successfully take
advantage of all available educational opportunities.
Coley, R. (2001). Differences in the gender gap: comparisons across
racial/ethnic groups in education and work. Princeton: Educational Testing
Service, Policy Information Center. Available: http://www.ets.org/research/pic
Willingham, W.W., & Cole, N.S. (1997). Gender and fair assessment.
Mahwah: NJ: Erlbaum. (ED 416 293)
Differences in the Gender Gap cites several publications that also report
on gender differences in education:
Kimura, D. (1999). Sex and cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press. (ED 438
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
(2000). The condition of education, 2000 (NCES 2000-062). Washington, DC:
U.S. Government Printing Office. (ED 437 742)
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
(2000). Trends in educational equity of girls and women (NCES 2000-030).
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. (ED 440 210)
The following web sites provide a list of print and Internet materials
on gender equity in education:
U.S. Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/offices/ODS/g-equity.html
American Association of University Women: http://www.aauw.org/1000/geneqrsc.html
Education Week: http://www.edweek.org/context/topics/issuespage.cfm?id=34