Is the SAT harder for girls?

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Choosing between taking the SAT and the ACT can be a difficult decision for any student, but a recent report from the SAT may indicate that, for at least half the population, the SAT is the harder test. Continuing an uninterrupted trend that goes back to at least 1972, high school boys outperformed high school girls on the 2015 SAT math test. Boys received an average score of 527 points compared to an average score of 496 for girls. For the students who had scores in the highest point range, boys represented 62.3% of those students, while girls only represented 37.7%.

How do we explain this gender gap?

One possible explanation is that boys are better students on average than girls are. But based on College Board data for students who took the 2015 SAT test, that explanation is false.

Of the 2015 SAT test-takers, girls had superior overall academic performance compared to boys. Girls represented 55% of the students in the top 10% of their classes. Likewise, 59% of the students who graduated with an A+ grade point average were girls, and girls graduated with a higher average GPA of 3.45, compared to a 3.31 average GPA for boys.

Furthermore, girls were more represented in advanced AP/Honors math and science classes compared to boys. Of students who took four years of math, girls represented a larger part of the total (55%) compared to boys (45%), and more of the students who took four years of science were girls (54%) than boys (46%).

Given these statistics, why do girls perform worse than boys on the SAT math test? Kim Elsesser, the author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition that’s Dividing the Workplace, says that it’s the result of stereotype threat. A topic much studied by psychologists, stereotype threat is the potential risk that people will confirm a negative stereotype about their “group” — i.e. their gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. Stereotypes, like the one that suggests girls aren’t good at math, increase self-doubt and anxiety during tests and result in worse scores for girls.

According to Elsesser, studies have found that reminding people of stereotypes prior to test-taking can worsen their scores. One study shows that stereotype threat can account for the entire gender difference in scores. Researchers recruited a group of high-performing girls and boys. Half of them were told that there were gender differences in the results: boys generally received higher scores than girls. The other half were told that no gender differences existed in the results. In the no gender differences group, the girls performed as well as the boys. However, in the gender differences group, the girls performed worse than the boys.

Fortunately, we can decrease the effects of stereotype threat. In one study, the effects of stereotype threat were reduced when students were told the following before taking the test: “it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re feeling anxious while taking this test, then it could be the result of negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well.” Other studies have found success in telling students that any anxiety they feel while taking the test will increase their performance. Such reassurances often reduce anxiety, which can in turn positively affect performance.

So, as you decide which test is right for you, remember that you are more than your gender or race — you are an individual, and no stereotype need determine your score.