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New research: Dynamics of the Gender Gap in high math achievement

One of the first papers I read when I started observing gender performance gaps in math competitions was The Gender Gap in Secondary School Mathematics at High Achievement Levels: Evidence from the American Mathematics Competitions by Dr. Ashley Swanson and Dr. Glenn Ellison. It was very insightful and made a lot of sense because I read it while I was going through the math competition journey myself. Even though this particular research was done almost a decade ago, unfortunately, macro performance trends have not changed much when it comes to performance gaps at high achievement levels. I have analyzed the data from the most recent decade, and the female percentage qualification for AIME, USAMO, and MOP have largely remained constant and low. As you see below, the following two graphs show the gender performance data in the United States from the AMC 12A in 2009 and the AMC 12A in 2015. The range of possible scores for the AMC 12A goes from 0 to 150 for 25 problems. For each possible score, you see the percentage of boys who received a given score in red and the percentage of girls who received the same score in blue. Girls are still not represented enough at the higher achievement levels, which is shown by there being a lot more red than blue as you move towards the higher scores on the chart.

The same researchers have published a brilliant new paper, observing the presence of a clear gender gap starting in the 9th grade and going forward. This gender gap becomes even more acute by the 12th grade. I included the authors’ conclusion and my perspective (in bold) below.

  1. A full analysis of pre-high school performance data has to be done to understand the gender gap in high math achievement among high school students. AMC 8 and MATHCOUNTS are popular competitions which would potentially aid in providing more clarity on the achievement gaps. I have analyzed data of AMC 8 from 2011-2017 and there are variety of reasons such as time pressure (40 minutes), anxiety, stereotype threats, and others that are potentially at play and need to be researched.
  2. The gender gap in high math achievement expands over the high school years with the biggest drop from 9th to 10th grade. The AMCs are not accessible to everyone and not always well advertised in the schools. Only a self-selecting group of students tend to prepare for the exam via math clubs, math circles, AoPS, or other means. There is also the factor that students get really busy with standardized tests prep and college applications in their junior and senior year. Also, many seniors lose interest in taking the AMC 12 given the test is in February, by which time many of the high achieving students will have already been accepted to their college of choice.

The leadership at Mathematical Association of America (MAA) is fully aware of various gender gaps at high achievement levels in many of the prestigious competitions they offer. They are systematically figuring out the reasons and how to start making changes to the competition types and format to ensure that the field of math competitions is even more inclusive and gender performance gaps narrow. I am looking forward to hopefully seeing a lot more progress narrowing these gaps in the next decade.


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