Campus News

Making the grade: New Terry College study helps explain why girls do better in elementary school

Elementary girl in class-h.env
The research shows

Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys-even when they perform worse on standardized tests?

New research from UGA and Columbia University published in the current issue of the Journal of Human Resources suggests that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts.

“The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,’ ” said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors. “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. I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.”

The study, co-authored by ­Cornwell and David Mustard, an associate ­professor of economics in the Terry College, and Jessica Van Parys at ­Columbia University, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in three categories-reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of their students’ progress, both academically and more broadly. The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in the grades given by teachers start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.

“The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities,” Cornwell said.

“It’s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions,” he also said. “So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”

Research about gender differences in the classroom and beyond has grabbed headlines recently. Titles like Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women and Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up have spent months on best-seller lists and inspired countless discussions in the media.

“We seem to have gotten to a point in the popular consciousness where people are recognizing the story in these data: Men are falling behind relative to women. Economists have looked at this from a number of different angles, but it’s in educational assessments that you make your mark for the labor market,” Cornwell said.

“The rate at which men go to college has slowed in recent years whereas the rate for women has not,” he added. “But if you roll the story back far enough, to the ’60s and ’70s, women were going to college in much fewer numbers. It’s at a point now where you’ve got women earning upward of 60 percent of the bachelors’ degrees awarded every year.”