New research has found some teachers mark boys’ primary (elementary) school maths tests more favourably than girls, impacting girls’ uptake of advanced mathematics and science subjects in high school. Entrance rates into maths and science degrees at university level can also be traced back to the impacts of teachers’ gender bias in primary school.
Higher levels of mathematics and science education have been linked to greater employment opportunities and higher earnings, meaning a primary teacher’s attitude towards maths can have a serious impact on a child’s future success.
Teachers assume boys are better at maths
The researchers followed nearly 3000 students from 6th grade to the end of high school. As a measure of teacher bias, they compared school 6th grade test marks given by teachers who knew the students’ sex, with external test marks for the same students, but with no identifying characteristics provided. The researchers identified that a worrying number of teachers gave boys higher maths test results than girls of the same ability. They also studied the long-term effects of this bias.
The study found that the effects of teacher bias (measured by giving lower marks in mathematics for the same standard of work as boys) persisted for girls, leading to poorer results through their high school years. However, many boys whose teachers over-assessed their performance in the early years went on to be successful in mathematics and science.
How students see themselves as learners is vital to encouraging them to study at higher levels. Girls in the study reported they were getting less support from “biased” teachers. This support is important for their future studies, as a study developed by international universities found that girls (more than boys) rated personal encouragement from teachers as very important in choosing university courses.
Results from long-term studies show that the way students rate their abilities in mathematics and science in 8th grade has a positive effect on how likely they are to earn a STEM (Science Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) degree.
The bias shown in the new study reflects the gender stereotype that girls and women cannot do maths. Employers also show bias against hiring women for mathematical tasks. However, studies of international test results show the gender gap disappears in countries with more gender-equal cultures such as Norway and Sweden, indicating that cultural biases can be altered.
Maths test anxiety and maths anxiety
In many countries across the world, children are being tested at an unprecedented level, along with an increased emphasis on accountability and standards.