Oxford gave female students more time to take tests. It didn’t work

All solved.
All solved.
Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay
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Students at Oxford University last summer were given 15 minutes more than usual to take mathematics and computer science exams, not because the questions were harder or longer than before—but because Oxford was trying to help women.

A report in the Telegraph this week reveals that the school extended the test-taking time for math and science examinations last year because academic leaders decided “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure.” In previous years, the number of male students achieving first-class degrees (the highest score in the UK’s academic valuation system) had been double the number of female students achieving the same, leading the department to take action.

Oxford is defending its decision change the goal posts of exam times, noting that women’s scores did improve under the “academically demanding and fair” changes. But per the Telegraph, the added time only helped women achieve more 2:1 grades than 2:2 grades—in other words, scores went up, but not by very much. First-class degrees were still predominantly male: 47% of male students received firsts, compared to 39% of female students.

Well-intentioned as it was, Oxford’s attempt to remedy the score disparity by simply extending examination times didn’t work for one reason: It addressed nothing in the root causes of the score differences.

There are better ways to equalize education across genders, such as devoting more resources to students when they’re younger—some studies suggest that the gender gap in math abilities starts as early as age four, and worsens with each year of teacher bias—or making sure that exams are testing an array of skills, not just ones favoring “male abilities” or gender-specific patterns of thinking. Recent research from the US Department of Education suggests that young girls are just as inherently adept at mathematics-based subjects as boys are. Slackening the time allotted for tests may be an easy answer to boosting female students’ scores, but it’s not the right one.