In news that could (hopefully) bode well for increasing the number of women in STEM fields in the future, eighth grade girls outperformed eighth grade boys on a national test measuring engineering and technology literacy. The exam, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was administered to 21,500 students across 800 public and private schools and is widely viewed as the nation’s “report card.” According to test results, 45 percent of girls scored proficient with 42 percent of boys achieving the same level (the student average totaled 43 percent proficient).
As the Washington Post reports, three major areas were tested within the exam: comprehension of technological principles, ability to create solutions, and communication and collaboration. Unsurprisingly, girls were especially strong in the third category.
The results of the exam are encouraging because of what they might mean for efforts to close the gender achievement gap. In fourth grade, girls not only perform as well as boys in STEM-related subjects, they have a strong interest in them (the National Center for Women in Technology reported that 66 percent of girls said they enjoy science and math). However, after elementary school, there tends to be a steep drop in both interest and performance in science and technology among girls—a decline that only gets worse as they enter college and the working world. This latest assessment, however, could mean that an end to that trend is on the horizon, particularly as it relates to students’ future professional life.
“It’s a literacy assessment as opposed to an achievement assessment, which is basically what we’ve been doing in the past with reading, math, and science,” Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics told Vox. “It’s not as much about the facts and telling us what you’ve learned in school—it’s the application of knowledge and skills to the real world.”
The test, however, did not yield such positive results for racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. There was only a 25 percent proficiency level among students who receive free or reduced lunch, compared to a 59 percent level among affluent students. There was also a major divide between black and Latino student proficiency (18 and 28 percent, respectively) compared to white and Asian students (who averaged 56 percent). Upon further research, Carr found that lower performing students are not taking classes in these areas—likely because the schools that serve lower-scoring students do not offer the same science and technology curriculum options as more affluent districts.
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