Girls are outperforming boys in every state in the nation in standardized reading tests, according to a new national report. And in Utah, girls score as well or better than boys in math -- until they reach high school.
The study, by the Washington D.C.-based Center on Education Policy (CEP), examined 2008 state test scores for boys and girls in fourth, eighth and 10th grades.
"We have good news for girls, but bad news for boys," Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the CEP, said in a phone interview with reporters. "In no state in the country are boys doing better than girls in reading at the elementary, middle or high-school level. This trend of boys lagging behind girls in reading is no fluke."
The gap between percentages of boys and girls who were proficient in reading was larger than 10 points in many states. In Utah, the gap was around 7 percentage points for elementary, middle and high school students.
By contrast, the study did not find a significant difference between girls and boys who are proficient at math. Historically, boys have outpaced girls in that subject.
Still, in Utah, equal portions of boys and girls (75 percent) were proficient in math in fourth grade. Girls edged ahead in eighth grade but fell behind boys in 10th grade, where only 66 percent of girls vs. 70 percent of boys scored proficient or better.
"It does mirror what we see going on culturally and within our schools," said Julie Mootz, a math specialist for Canyons School District. "Gender, in and of itself, doesn't make a male better at math or a female better at reading."
But stereotypes that girls are good at language arts and boys are good at math and science continue to steer both genders toward those subjects, she said.
"Culturally, they don't want to stand out, especially girls. They want to blend, blend, blend," Mootz added.
Educators have been pushing for girls to study and to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math for the past two decades, Mootz noted, but fewer women than men continue to enter those fields.
The trend of boys falling behind in literacy also could be a factor in their success later in life, Jennings noted. Other research has shown boys are more likely to drop out of high school or choose not to go to college.
"Something is going on in our schools that is holding boys back," he said. "Girls should continue [to be encouraged] to reach their full potential. We also should ask the question of why boys are lagging behind."
Susan B. Neuman, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, suggested that part of the problem could be reading content. Boys, she said, gravitate toward informational books that explore the world around them.
"We have to re-evaluate our curriculum, re-evaluate how we are managing our classrooms to ensure that all these children are getting the highest quality education and teaching," Neuman said in a phone interview with reporters.
Jill Baillie, a Canyons district specialist in reading and other subjects, agrees that students benefit from being offered a wide variety of books.
"Often the one novel does not fit all," she said. " We need to steer students in a direction where they are choosing texts that interest them."
Teachers, counselors and parents, Baillie noted, also should send the message that students can excel in any subject.
"We can say all students can do mathematics," she said, "and all students can do language arts."