Girls beat boys in a major test of tech and engineering skills—and the gap is growing

Tomorrow’s engineers.
Tomorrow’s engineers.
Image: Reuters/Jason Redmond
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On one major standardized test measuring proficiency in technology and engineering, there’s a gap in scores favoring girls. And it’s growing.

Eighth-grade girls outperformed boys in every single category of the 2018 Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, including content-focused areas such as design and systems and technology and society, and “practice” areas, such as understanding technology principles and developing solutions and achieving goals.

The test is part of a growing battery of assessments meant to measure real-life skills, recognizing the obvious fact that jobs do not require content regurgitation as much as problem solving, collaboration, and digital savvy. Overall, the share of students scoring at least “proficient” on the test rose from 43% in 2014 to 46% in 2018.

STEM sells

The exam results reflect two trends: first, there has been a massive push to get girls to take more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes in a bid to close the huge gender gap in tech and engineering jobs. Second, there has also been a push to develop more digitally relevant curriculums to meet the demands of an economy more dependent on automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

Nearly 60% of eighth-graders reported taking at least one class related to technology or engineering in 2018, up by five percentage points from 2014. Not surprisingly, the students who took one of these classes performed better on the TEL test than those who didn’t.

The test also highlights some worrying tends. Though Asian, black, and white students all performed better in 2018 compared with 2014, average scores among Asians (169) and whites (163) far outpaced those of blacks (132) and Hispanics (139). And poor children, identified as  those eligible for the National School Lunch Program, scored 30 points lower than other students.

“Girls have done extremely well in this assessment,” Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics told EdWeek. But she added: “We did not see improvement at the lower-end of our ability distribution.”

The report is yet more bad news for boys, who lag girls on nearly every measure of academic success, with massive gender gaps in reading as well graduation rates in high school and college. One extensive study by Stanford last year found that the gap in favor of girls in reading exists in every grade, every year, and every district (it examined 260 million state tests given to students in grades three through eight in 10,000 US school districts). Girls, on average, outperform boys by about a half a grade level in fourth grade, but a full year by eighth grade.

In the real world

The test is another example of governments and research bodies like the OECD trying to find ways to test the skills people care about today, namely critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and interdisciplinary thinking.

The TEL uses scenario-based performance tasks as well as multiple-choice questions. In one example, students are told a television network is promoting a show about the Andromeda Galaxy and they need to find an image of galaxy to use on the website. This includes securing permission to use a copyrighted image and crediting the owner of the image. (The students were generally good at finding the image, but less adept at accurately citing the source of copyrighted material.)

The assessment also included a student questionnaire which revealed some of the qualities of high- and low-performing students. According to EdWeek, those who said they frequently take things apart to see how they work scored about10 points better on content related to “designs and systems” than students who didn’t. Also, most high performers could “describe one way the environment could benefit from the use of simplified packaging for a product that is sold online,” compared with just one-quarter of low-performers.

If girls are performing better on tasks like this, it should bode well for employment later in life, since being able to work with technology while also communicating and collaborating effectively is more versatile than having tech skills but no social ones. Sadly, many working in tech today still disagree.