Standardized tests: a “boy crisis”

Girls are outperforming boys in every way on the Illinois grade school standardized tests, reported a recent article in the Chicago Tribune. Girls have historically done better than boys in reading and writing, while boys historically did better on the science and some of the math exams. In 2007, girls did better in all areas. Apparently, girls have progressed much more rapidly than boys in recent years, according to the 2007 Illinois State Report Card data. Does this constitute a “boy crisis?”

This article brings up several points that have OR implications.

1. The tests are written in such a way as to not be biased in any way (not just for gender).

Creating race- and gender-neutral achievement exams is as much art as science. Test creators must ensure that the content of each question and its phrasing do not favor one group over the other. They have to make sure that each testing concept is formed — whether as a multiple choice or a written extended response, for example — in a way that does not tilt the balance toward one gender.

This is ambiguous. Do they write the questions such that each group should perform equally well on the exam? Or do they account for differences in how the genders learn? I don’t know how they could, since that isn’t well understood (I’ve never been convinced that boys are naturally better than math than girls, but I’ll ponder that another day). What assumptions are they making when writing exam questions and what is the objective?

How does one optimally write an exam question? I would like to know! The word problems on my exams probably have some kind of gender bias since they are often based on real-world engineering examples, and since engineering has historically been male-dominated, men might do better on my exams. (Fortunately, my grades don’t support this hypothesis). But I’d rather not take gender stereotypes into account when writing my exams; that doesn’t seem right. I sidestep the issues by not using any gender pronouns (such as he or she) in homework questions or exam problems.

2. School funding depends on test performance and improvement in test scores.
I have talked with colleagues on many occasions about how our incoming university students come from a different culture than did their university professors. In the age of No Child Left Behind (more from wikipedia), the responsibility of learning now falls on teachers, not the students. The underlying assumptions arm students with an attitude of entitlement (However, my mother, a junior high school teacher, claims that the students’ attitudes mirror that of their parents). If the test questions and learning abilities stayed the same, and the only thing that changed was the environment, would girls have improved so much faster than boys? I’d love to do the hypothesis test! I can’t imagine how to isolate the effect of NCLB attitude.

3. How should schools use funding to improve scores?
I love resource allocation problems! Should resources be allocated to try to improve the boys’ scores or to further improve the girls’ scores? Sadly, the objective is probably to maximize the probability of receiving additional funding (by teaching to the test and eliminating recess) rather than improving learning while being equitable.

In the end, I feel uncomfortable about these kinds of musings since they seem to implicitly enforce gender stereotypes, which can be damaging to both genders. As a math-lover, I am often embarrassed when women gleefully and unashamedly tell me how bad they are at math. This was the topic of a spirited conversation at the WORMS lunch at the INFORMS Annual Meeting. None of us had any good answers, but we WORMS are trying to be good role models and to slowly change these stereotypes.

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