Girls' Math Performance Study Points To A Late-Round Rally, Suggests Equal Ability

02/26/2013 04:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Studies consistently show that males perform better in single-event math contests, but new research published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization says those other studies threw in the towel too soon.

Researchers explain in the paper's abstract how the methodology of the latest study differed from previous experiments :

We conduct a series of math contests in elementary schools, which are similar to past experiments except for one notable exception: subjects compete in five sequential contests, rather than a one-shot contest typically used. Although males outperform females in the first period contest, we find no evidence of a male advantage in subsequent periods. Females even outperform males in later periods.

In a press statement, BYU economics professor Joe Price, who worked with Christopher Cotton from the University of Miami and Frank McIntyre at Rutgers, explained that girls simply needed to stay in the game to perform better. The researchers said that the competitive incentives encouraged males to perform better on short, five-minute quizzes than otherwise "high-ability" females. When the contests were repeated, the playing field leveled out.

To further test their results, Price, Cotton and McIntyre took the contests off the clock, and found that when neither speed nor competition were emphasized, female students performed equally as well as the boys.

Price explained in the statement that the research didn't provide any insight into the reasons for the difference, "if it's boys getting excited and over-performing or if it's girls being too uncomfortable with the situation."

This is no doubt welcome news to educators and advocates in the national movement to encourage more women to enter careers or courses of study within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. While women represent 50 percent of the American population, they represent only 24 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the Association for Women in Science.

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