Longitudinal Study Finds Sex Differences Nonexistent In Overall Math Performance Of Primary School Age Boys & Girls In Baltimore

June 5, 2007
Kennedy Krieger Institute Research Counters Reported National "Gender Gap" in Math Achievement

(Baltimore, MD) - Ever since the seminal report of sex differences first published by Maccoby & Jacklin appeared more than 30 years ago (1974), the notion that males outperform females in mathematics and spatial skills has sparked controversy. Although some studies support this contention, others do not. Adding to the growing body of sex differences research, a longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences found sex differences in math to be minimal or nonexistent in primary school age children attending seven schools in Baltimore.

The study followed a group of more than 200 children from schools in Baltimore, Maryland to determine possible sex differences in math performance during primary school (kindergarten to third grade). Over the four year period, the annual assessments included measures of math ability and math achievement (testing concepts and procedures pertaining to numbers, geometry, addition, subtraction, measurement, time and money), visual perception tests (distinguishing and matching shapes), visual motor tasks (copying and redrawing shapes) and reading skills (reading aloud letters, words and passages and decoding word sounds). The researchers found no results suggesting a persistent male or female advantage in math or spatial skills performance overall, during any one single year of the study, or in any one area of math or spatial skills. Progress rates for all math skills, and early indicators of later math performance, were comparable for boys and girls.

"One contribution of this research is its focus on the growth of math skills over a four-year period, which allowed us to assess both the early development and emergence of possible sex differences in kindergartners through third graders," said Dr. Michèle M.M. Mazzocco, Director of the Math Skills Development Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "Reports of sex differences in academic performance can perpetuate societal beliefs and gender stereotypes; when these influence parents' and teachers' expectations of an individual child's ability, such beliefs can be detrimental in the classroom setting. Our findings support the idea that sex differences are not justifiable grounds for primary school teachers to base expectations or explanations of their students' math performance."

Although the study participants began their schooling in Baltimore, the researchers believe that these findings may not be restricted to a single school district because many children who changed school districts or moved out of state during the course of the four years continued to participate in the study. Additionally, some of these findings are similar to those reported by other researchers, whose findings were limited to children seen during only one grade. For instance, Kennedy Krieger researchers found that boys were overrepresented among both the bottom and top math performers in the earliest grades that they examined; other researchers have made similar observations. However, in this study, the pattern diminished over the four years of the study.

Kindergartners from seven participating schools were invited to participate, with the exclusion of children with mental retardation or limited English proficiency. The researchers acknowledge that this study was conducted in schools within the Baltimore area and a wider sample of students would be necessary to extrapolate national trends from the data. Additionally, although a broad range of socioeconomic status (SES) levels was represented in the sample, the participants excluded students from the lowest and highest SES categories. Kennedy Krieger researchers continue to conduct and analyze longitudinal studies in order to further assess sex differences in a range of skills among elementary and middle school children.

About the Kennedy Krieger Institute

Internationally recognized for improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD serves more than 12,000 individuals each year through inpatient and outpatient clinics, home and community services and school-based programs. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children with developmental concerns mild to severe, and is home to a team of investigators who are contributing to the understanding of how disorders develop while pioneering new interventions and earlier diagnosis. For more information on Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit www.kennedykrieger.org.

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