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Girls and Math: You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Alberta Einstein, where are you?

Girls now score as well as boys on average on state math tests, a new Wisconsin-Berkeley study published in Science has found.

Back in 1992, when Teen Talk Barbie was criticized for pointing out that "Math class is tough," girls took easier high school math classes and earned lower math scores than boys. No more. Now girls are taking the same tough math classes as their male classmates. It shows.

While males continue to outscore females on the math SAT, that's skewed by the fact that a larger percentage of female students take the test, the researchers said. In Colorado and Illinois, where all students are required to take the ACT, the gender gap vanished.

Girls are outperforming boys in the classroom: Female students read better, earn higher grades, and are more likely to complete high school, go on to college, and earn a degree. (See Richard Whitmire's Why Boys Fail for more on the gender gap.) Young women have reached parity or superiority in law, medicine, accounting, business, and undergraduate math degrees. (Many math majors go on to teach math, so the fact that women make up 48 percent of enrollment isn't all that surprising.)

Males hold the lead in only a few disciplines: engineering, physics, chemistry, and computer science.

Larry Summers was forced to resign in 2006 as president of Harvard after speculating that differences in high-level math ability might account for women earning fewer doctorates in math, engineering, physics, and chemistry.

Pushed by Congress, several federal agencies are investigating whether universities that receive science grants are discriminating against women in the labs. (See John Tierney in the New York Times on "title nining" science.)

As a former member of the mainstream media, I can tell you that most reporters -- male, female, and confused -- found math classes to be tough. But nearly all hailed the study as proof of the downfall of another stereotype: Girls are just as good at math!

Nearly all took occasion to sneer at Summers and suggest that nothing but discrimination is keeping women out of physics and engineering labs.

Nearly all -- except for the Wall Street Journal and Heather Mac Donald at City Journal -- seem to have read the press release but not the full report.

To start with, researchers had trouble measuring advanced math ability because so many state tests asked few questions requiring complex problem-solving skills; 10 states had no complex questions.

Using other assessments, the researchers determined that boys are more likely to score at the very high and the very low end of the scale, while girls' scores cluster in the middle.

White boys are twice as likely as white girls to score above the 99th percentile, they found Asian girls are more likely to excel than Asian boys. (Very few black and Hispanic students scored above the 95th percentile.) Since most students are white, most high scorers with the ability to excel in math-heavy disciplines are male.

Looking at math ability alone, about one third of engineering Ph.D. candidates should be female, the researchers wrote. The fact that it's only 15 percent suggests that old stereotypes have held women back, they believe.

That spin, reflected in the press release, became the story.

On the blog Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok did the reading. He observes that Larry Summers, in his ill-fated speech, was talking about the very, very talented. Summers said, "If one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. ... But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out."

Tabarrok also did the math, estimating that a top-25 math or physics department would be only 25 percent female, if math ability is the only issue.

Of course it's not. Women might reject academic careers due to discrimination or the lingering effects of old stereotypes. But there's also evidence that women who are good at math are less likely to choose engineering, physics, etc. Math-smart women are more likely than math-smart men to have good verbal and social skills. They have more choices. Which is good.

When I think of math girls, I see my niece solving toothpick math puzzles set by our waitress on our Alaska cruise. After acing BC Calculus in high school, Lee was allowed to take upper-division math classes in her first year in college. She plans to major in "cognitive science," which I think is math, computer science, and psychology. Will she be a professor? Design interfaces for some high-tech company? I don't even know what her choices will be, but I know she'll have choices because she can do math. It's a brave new world.