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Framework of Analysis

Like blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians, girls begin to drop out of science and mathematics courses and activities during elementary and secondary school. But the reasons they drop out appear to be different. The most striking differences between whites and Asians on the one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other are in science and mathematics achievement as well as in the opportunity for exposure to advanced classes. The most striking differences between boys and girls are not in achievement or opportunities to learn, but in their attitudes toward science and mathematics. Even when girls have similar exposure to courses and similar achievement levels, they are less confident of their ability and less interested in science and engineering careers. These differences in attitude may be due to subtle messages females receive from their families, schools, and society. The differences in course-taking of college-bound students are discussed in chapter 3.

Achievement Up arrow

Since 1973, there has not been a gap in the mathematics proficiency scores of girls and boys at ages 9 and 13, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. A slight gap that existed from 1973 to 1986 between the scores of 17-year-old boys and girls has now virtually disappeared. (See appendix table 2-17.) In science proficiency, the 1990 scores of 9-year-old girls were virtually the same as boys'. There was a growing gap between girls' and boys' scores at age 13 and age 17, which has been persistent since the 1970's. (See appendix table 2-16.) This gap is found primarily at the highest levels of science proficiency, however; there are very small differences between males and females when their scores are broken down by range of achievement level (i.e., basic to advanced) except at the highest range. (See figure 2-9.) Most of the differences in average science proficiency in the 12th grade between males and females were found in the physical sciences (U.S. Department of Education/NCES 1992, p. 63). These slight differences may be related to courses taken at the advanced levels; see the discussion on course-taking in chapter 3.

Figure 2-9

Attitude Up arrow

Differences appear in indicators of student attitudes toward taking science and mathematics courses, especially in the senior year. In a survey of high school students about why they decided not to take certain courses in their senior year, higher percentages of females than males said they did not like math (40 percent of females versus 27 percent of males) or said there were other courses they wanted to take (40 percent versus 33 percent). Similar explanations were given for decisions not to take a science course in their senior year: Higher percentages of females than males said they did not like science (35 percent of females versus 22 percent of males) or said there were other courses they wanted to take (41 percent versus 31 percent). (See text table 2-6.)
These attitudes in high school are reflected in the decisions of students about their future careers. In 1990 only 6 percent of public high school seniors overall reported that they expected to pursue a career in science, mathematics, or engineering, but the breakdown by sex indicated that the percentage for males was more than three times higher than for females (10 percent versus 3 percent). Much of this difference was accounted for by the small percentage of females (2 percent) versus males (9 percent) anticipating engineering careers.
The young women's relative lack of enthusiasm for science and mathematics may reflect school, family, or societal attitudes. Higher percentages of females reported being advised not to take senior math (34 percent of females versus 26 percent of males) or science (32 percent versus 26 percent). (See text table 2-6.) In addition, in 1990, 16 percent more male than female 10th grade students reported ever talking to their parents about science and technology issues. (See figure 2-10.)

Figure 2-10

The females' attitudes could also be influenced by their lack of teacher role models. As students move from elementary to secondary school, the percentage of female teachers of mathematics and science drops steadily. (See figure 2-11.)

Figure 2-11

The critical factors that keep females from pursuing science and engineering courses in elementary/secondary school appear to be their attitudes toward the subject areas-which are influenced by family and societal biases as well as by the lack of exposure to role models in the field-and counseling by school advisors against taking advanced courses. Although progress has been made, in that females' achievement is similar to that of males in all but the most advanced levels of science and mathematics, it is success at these advanced levels that encourages students to enter science-related fields.

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