Bias against girls who are interested in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) starts early, and lasts long.
It begins in grade school, when teachers' unconscious biases subtly favor boys over girls — even feminist teachers who try to watch their own biases. It persists in academia, whether it's in undergraduate science courses, grad student laboratories, or the faculty hiring process.
It helps drive career women out of the tech industry in droves, because they get sick of the constant sexual harassment. It helps keep the percentage of women employed in well-paying STEM fields, especially engineering, depressingly low.
That's why it's such a big deal that this week, the federal government announced that eighth-grade girls performed better than eighth-grade boys on a new test measuring technology and engineering literacy.
The test, administered in 2014 to 21,500 students at 840 public and private schools, was a brand new part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also called the Nation's Report Card.
Girls scored 3 points better than boys overall, and even higher in some categories. Girls outscored boys by 5 points on questions dealing with communication and collaboration, and by 6 points on questions about information and communication technology.
This gender difference was also true, at least to an extent, when broken down by race. White girls scored 4 points higher than white boys, and black girls scored 5 points higher than black boys. Asian girls scored the same as Asian boys, however, and while Hispanic girls scored 2 points higher than Hispanic boys, the difference wasn't statistically significant.
How this test is different, and why it matters
It would be really unusual to see girls doing this well on regular science or math tests in eighth grade, said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in an interview with Vox.
Fourth grade? Sure. Boys and girls perform about the same on science and math assessments at that age. But by eighth grade, Carr said, you see the boys starting to overtake the girls. And by 12th grade, the boys are scoring higher. Maybe it's "math phobia," maybe it's self-fulfilling prophecies of lower teacher expectations.
But whatever causes this achievement gap, it vanishes on this new test. That may be because its subject matter and methods are pretty groundbreaking, and not like other standardized tests.
Carr said this is the first time that the NAEP, and maybe even the testing industry as a whole, has given a nationally representative STEM test that focused on the T and E (technology and engineering) rather than science and math.
And the assessment is based on immersive, scenario-based tasks — like creating a museum exhibit about Chicago's history with water pollution, or designing experiments to figure out why a fictional class pet iguana named Iggy isn't feeling well.
"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," Carr said. "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."
Carr said the test wasn't intended to address gender disparities. It was just supposed to be about making sure students are equipped to deal with a modern world full of constantly changing technology, and to confront a future that will require technology to solve some of its biggest challenges, like energy and transportation.
But it's definitely "food for thought," Carr said, that the hands-on, collaborative design of the test seemed to help out girls so much.
The test also, however, confirmed that racial and economic disparities affect how students scored. White and Asian students did better than black and Hispanic students, and students in urban areas did worse than students in suburbs.
"When we looked a little deeper, what we found is that [lower-scoring students] are not taking classes in these areas," Carr said. Some schools, mostly more affluent ones, offer specific classes in technology and engineering. And some schools are more likely to feature units in their core science or social studies classes on these subjects, and on the problem-solving skills that help students do well on the new NAEP test.
Carr said she's also interested to see what happens when the test is given to 12th-graders, and whether girls will still do as well when they reach their senior year.
Either way, this test begins to show us where we might be failing girls in STEM education, and it shows us that girls are just as capable as boys of doing this work in the real world.
"It's about solving problems by thinking through complicated, real-world issues," Carr said. "It's also about collaboration and communication, which is something that engineers care a lot about. It's not just knowing what to do and how to do it, but also communicating what you learned, and evaluating sources of information and the audience that you have to share this information with."