Boys will be boys?
Author: Jennifer VanBuren

Pink or blue booties? Princesses or Power Rangers? Glitter glue or mud pies? While every child is an individual, gender trends remain. Should these differences affect the number on a child’s report card?

Researchers, led by Christopher M. Cornwell of the University of Georgia, followed a cohort of students as they progressed from kindergarten to grade five, hoping to compare objective test scores with subjective teacher assessments. The results showed that grades given by teachers do not align with objective test scores, and teacher grades favor girls across the board. While boys in general score at least as well in reading, science and math tests, their report cards do not reflect their level of learning. The study also shows that when non-cognitive skills are removed from the grading system, the grade difference between girls and boys disappears.

Cornwell asks, “What does this mean? If school grades do not reflect learning, what do they measure? We document that girls are substantially more amenable to the learning process than boys, and that this non-cognitive skill is a significant factor in teacher assessments, even after controlling for test outcomes.” In plain English, when boys score at least as high on objective tests that measure learning of content, the grades on their report cards are lower than girls. Why?

A tale of two students
Jonathan scores close to 100 percent on every math test. So why does his report card say 85 percent? Perhaps he daydreams and forgets to turn in assignments. Perhaps he is introverted and has difficulty working in a group. Or perhaps he has trouble sitting and his apparent inattentiveness cost him his recess. Perhaps his mother finally gave up on forcing him to do another worksheet when he pleaded, “Mom, how many times do I have to show her that I know how to do this?”

Jamie works hard to score in the 80 percent range on her test scores, but she enjoys creative projects like making posters and always does extra credit. When she struggles, her parents help her finish every worksheet and she always turns in her assignments on time. She works great in groups, is helpful and friendly. It always looks like she is paying attention even when she would rather be outside playing with her friends. She gets a 92 percent on her report card. Why is her report card grade higher than Jonathan’s? Perhaps she has learned how to play the game of how to do well in school and perhaps the game is stacked in her favor.

Jamie and Jonathan are stereotypes, amalgams of some common trends we see in girls and boys. They don’t exist, but the trends do. Many girls love math and many boys struggle. Many boys are super-organized and attentive and many girls are disruptive and unfocused. These studies show trends and averages.

Should Jamie’s hard work, preparedness and punctuality be reinforced? Certainly. Should Jonathan’s lack of organization and difficulty with group work be ignored just because he is good at math? Certainly not.

These skills are important and should be taught, modeled and reinforced. But what about that magic number on the report card? What does it actually mean?

Long-term implications 101
One might argue, “Grades are just grades, as long as the boys are passing, why does it matter if they are not doing as well in school as girls?” In some ways, this is true. Isn’t it the learning itself that matters, not a number on a piece of paper? Ideally, yes, but realistically, no.

Children get their sense of self-worth and self-identity by the way they are treated and viewed by adults in their society. When boys consistently score lower than girls on their report cards, they may be sent the message that they are not smart and they are not good at school. What does this do to a boy’s academic future?

Grades open or close doors to academic opportunities such as enrichment programs, advanced placement classes and honor societies. “If grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned,” says Cornwell.

In the 1960s, enrollment in college was evenly distributed between males and females. The percent of females has been increasing ever since, with a current rate of college enrollment at 57 percent, leaving the males behind at 43 percent. Nearly half of this gender gap can be linked to lower high school graduation rates. Why do boys lag behind girls in high school completion? Does the explanation begin with the focus on the role of non-cognitive factors in primary school?

What to do, what to do?
Male underachievement in schools is not strictly a U.S. issue. British, Canadians and Australians have addressed this problem head-on. From programs that help boys to be more organized, focused and engaged in class to including more traditionally boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage), schools are looking to meet the boys at their interests and help them in areas of need.

Ensuring that students have more opportunity to be physically active is good for boys and girls, but boys in general seem to need to move in order to be focused. Does it seem natural to have them sitting indoors for long periods of time? Can we blame them for daydreaming, being fidgety and unfocused? Their behaviors can be seen as a lack of trying, lack of caring or a lack of interest in learning, when in fact, these boys are really struggling to survive academically in an environment that is counter to their nature.

For years, there has been a push to help girls reach their academic goals, particularly in math and science. They were seen as having difficulty in these subjects, or having a low sense of their ability to succeed. In fact, even though they are faring better than their male counterparts, programs designed just for girls are still provided. These programs are excellent and have helped girls to meet their potential, but with the information showing the male struggle in schools, perhaps new programs encouraging boys are also needed.

Time to take another look at grading? Should there be more than one grade for each class: one for the mastery of content and another for behavior-related marks such as class participation, working together, homework and time on task?

There are a lot of questions in this article! Raise your hand if you have the answers; I promise I will call on you regardless of your gender.

Jennifer VanBuren of Georgetown is a freelance writer, educator and mom of three boys.

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