ATHENS, Ga. — Elementary and middle school teachers give higher grades to girls than boys — but that may be more about differences in behavior than differences in what they know, according to new research by University of Georgia economists.
“It appears that teachers see girls’ performance more favorably than boys’ performance,” said Christopher Cornwell, head of the UGA economics department and the study’s lead author.
Cornwell, fellow UGA economist David Mustard and former UGA student Jessica Von Parys compared teachers’ evaluations of what students knew to what the students actually scored on tests in a nationwide sample of nearly 6,000 children.
The disparities between grades and test performance show up as early as kindergarten and persist as children advance through school, the researchers found.
From an early age, girls on average do better on test scores in reading, while boys do better at math; science results are more mixed.
But teachers’ evaluations of how well their students were performing academically were strongly influenced by their assessments of how well-behaved children were, they found.
“You would think there would be a close alignment between teachers’ assessment of performance and test scores, but they’re not as closely aligned as you’d think,” Cornwell said.
And that misalignment favors girls, he said.
“It’s not just that they’re not aligned. Boys are less favorably rendered than the girls,” he said.
In the study, teachers were asked to assess their students not only for academic achievement, but on skills the researchers call Approaches to Learning.
“You can think of Approaches to Learning as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is. It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization,” Cornwell said.
Girls tend to score higher than boys on the Approaches to Learning measure, but teachers seemed to give well-behaved boys a bonus, giving them academic grades higher than what their test scores would suggest, the UGA analysis found.
Another research paper on gender disparity sheds some light on what the UGA researchers found, Cornwell said.
Authors Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore found that students who experienced school suspensions on average didn’t perform as well in school — and that boys are a lot more likely to be suspended than girls.
Bertrand and Pan found that boys from all backgrounds were more likely than girls to act out in ways that would get them suspended from school. But the gender gap was greatest between boys and girls from poor families, homes with teen mothers, and families with low incomes — which are often single-parent homes, they said.
“We find that boys’ higher likelihood to act out and eventually experience a school suspension is about twice as large in the sample of children raised by single mothers, as well as in the sample of children raised by teenage mothers,” Bertrand and Pan wrote.
They also found that parents were more likely to read to their girl children than their boys, and to sign girls up for extracurricular activities.
Whatever the complicated reasons behind the early gender gaps, the results are showing up in college and beyond, Cornwell said — nearly 60 percent of college undergraduate degrees are now awarded to women.
“The seeds of a gender gap in educational attainment may be sown at an early age, because teachers’ grades strongly influence grade-level placement, high-school graduation and college admission prospects,” Cornwell and his co-authors wrote in their paper, published in the current issue of the Journal of Human Resources.
That’s a big change from a few decades ago, when artificial barriers helped keep women out of college, even though they might make better grades than men, Cornwell noted.