So, you say you have trouble meeting girls in Math 55. The problem might not be yours. Researchers at Johns opkins University say they have evidence that females probably have less mathematical ability than males, limiting their achievement in the field.
Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley acknowledge that differences in the upbringings of boys and girls as well as their different attitudes toward math are major reasons for the very small number of creative female mathematicians--some experts contend that you can count the number of women doing notable work in mathematics on one hand. But, the two Johns Hopkins psychologists believe that such social factors can only account for part of the difference in mathematical performance between males and females.
Their project was originally designed to observe learning patterns among children precociously talented in mathematics. But differences in mathematical aptitude among boys and girls in the tested samples were hard to ignore. Administering the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to seventh and eight-graders with observed ability in mathematics. Stanley found that boys perform on part with girls on the verbal portion, but do much better on the math segment. The largest differences were between the highest scoring boys and the highest scoring girls, and, in each of the six talent searches between 1972 and 1979, the top performer was a boy.
Because the SAT includes questions that test more sophisticated mathematical skills than those usually taught in junior high classes, the researchers felt confident that the test measures genuine aptitude instead of classroom preparation in mathematics. They reported that boys seemed more competent on problems that required reasoning and not just computation, where girls displayed greater proficiency.
The authors: of the study emphasize that all the boys and girls tested had proven ability for and expressed interest in mathematics. The girls tested did not have any sort of "math anxiety"; instead, the differences were found among the most motivated and able junior high school students.
The Benbow and Stanley study has drawn much criticism both for its interpretation and its methods. Both psychologists and mathematicians claim that too little is known about the development of mathematical ability during childhood to support the assertion of genetic differences between males and females. Others say that the relative performances on the SATs between boys and girls might reflect different test-taking strategies.
Ronald G. Slaby, associate professor of Education, said yesterday that although he was not familiar with the Benbow and Stanly study, he considered it controversial because of its possible implications for educational policy. He cited alternative explanations--differences in the development of sex roles--to account for the apparent disparity in performance among boys and girls. He said that boys and girls in elementary school might receive different sorts of feedback in classroom situations that could lead to alternate studying strategies and interests. "Ability differences might develop out of children's choices to puruse the subject or not," he added.
Elizabeth Fennema, a member of the education department at the University of Wisconsin, yesterday criticized the statistical techniques of the Johns Hopkins group. She said their research was invalid because its initial intent was not to study difference between the sexes. "The study was not a study. It was an accumulation of a numbers of things over a number of years," she said. Fennema also disagreed with the researchers' interpretation from the data that superior male ability in mathematics might be a genetic pattern, pointing out that the study included only a narrow sample of students. "They (the tested sample) are in the upper 2 to 5 per cent of the population. When the researchers try to generalize back to the rest of the population, that is not scientifically sound," she said.
Whatever the origin of mathematical ability, it seems clear that males go on to do better than females in math. Stanley followed a sample of the girls who performed well in his original talent searches and found that, for the most part, they did not maintain interest in the subject. The female sample which took the SATs in 1972, now in college, appeared to be experiencing as much difficulty in math courses as a random sample of women in college.
This decline in mathematical aptitude probably reflects the social responses more than any other factor, Johns Hopkins researchers showed. They reported that far fewer seventh--and eighth-grade girls than boys who performed well on the SATs, elected to enroil in accelerated summer courses that the university offered especially for them. the researchers attribute this unwillingness to the girls' not wanting to appear different from their friends. Also, many of the girls described the boys who would no doubt enroll in the courses as "little creeps". This inertia perhaps manifests itself later on in high school, where girls often decline to take more advanced math courses, such as those teaching calculus.
Scientists will certainly find it hard to unravel social factors from any alleged genetic differences in ability, as this controversy will continue. Until it is resolved, the "little creeps" that populate upper-level math courses might have to do their socializing after class.