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Gender gaps in school achievement: study yields surprises

It's not exactly a news flash, but boys and girls are different — and not just physically. Around the world, boys have somewhat higher achievement in mathematics, a well-known phenomenon. But the gap between reading achievement is three times as large, and it’s the girls who get the high scores. The results come from a study that examined math and reading scores over 10 years on the Program for International Student Assessment — 1.5 million students in 75 countries participated.

"Girls' higher scores in reading could lead to advantages in admissions to certain university programs, such as marketing, journalism or literature, and subsequently careers in those fields," according to a press release for the study. "Boys lower reading scores could correlate to problems in any career, since reading is essential in most jobs."

Consistent patterns within nations suggest that gender differences in achievement are not simply related to socio-economic conditions, the release said. But boys' scores showed more sensitivity to those factors.

"In nations with impoverished or violent conditions, boys' scores tended to fall faster and further than girls. On the other hand, in wealthier, socially stable nations, boys' scores benefited more than girls."

Wide achievement gaps between boys and girls in math are more common in wealthier countries, where considerable efforts are being made to promote STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math, noted the British magazine Futurity. The achievement gender gap in math in the U.K. is one of the widest in the world, along with countries such as the United States, the Netherlands and Germany.

The gender gap in reading gets less attention than the gender gap in math, according to Futurity, but there was not a single country in which boys exceeded girls in reading. And for boys and girls at the low end of the academic scale, that gap is greater still, and growing.

The study identified an inverse relationship between math and reading gaps. In countries with small reading gaps, math gaps were large, and vice versa. The report suggests that efforts to close math achievement gaps have created trade-offs that decreased focus on reading.