Gender performance differences on the math SAT

iStock_000014316766XSmallDespite some recent evidence that the gap may be closing, gender differences in performance on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), persist. To better understand the reasons for these differences, researchers analyzed performance on individual items in an effort to identify relative strengths and weaknesses for male and female students.

Abigail M. Harris, Fordham University, and Sydell T. Carlton, Educational Testing Service, matched male and female students by their math SAT scores and studied their performance on different types of items. Although no difference was apparent in more than half the categories investigated, some significant differences were found. On average, male students performed better on items involving geometry content, “real life” applications, and on those which included visual stimuli or required a computed answer. Female students performed better on general questions about the structure of number systems and number set, as well as on algebra problems, the more abstract items and those involving variables.

The researchers also rated items for cognitive complexity. Female students outperformed males on lower-level items, but males performed better on the most complex items.

This research reveals different patterns of correct responses for male and female students who earn the same score on the math portion of the SAT. The researchers recommend further investigation of these differences, but suggest on the basis of these results that female students may benefit from greater curricular emphasis on applied mathematical problems. They add that in a recent study by Wainer and Steinberg, math SAT scores underpredicted actual college mathematics performance for females.

“Patterns of Gender Differences on Mathematics Items on the Scholastic Aptitude Test”, Applied Measurement in Education, Volume 62, Number 2, pp. 137-151.

Published in ERN November/December 1993, Volume 6, Number 5.

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