Girls outscore boys on a technology test, but troubling racial gap remains

Only 25 percent of lower-income eighth grade students achieved proficiency on a national STEM exam, compared to 59 percent of more affluent peers.

Bennett Raglin/AP/Images for Samsung
Samsung Electronics America unveiled a remodeled STEM technology center at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, NJ, on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. Eighth-grade girls girls slightly outscored boys on a recent national technology and engineering literacy test.

The news that girls outscored boys on a national technology and engineering literacy test is being greeted with enthusiasm, offset by concern over how minorities and public school students drastically underperformed on the same test.

While girls scored slightly higher on STEM sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered in 2014 with its results announced this week, their strengths were not so much in the traditional areas of "Technology and Society" or "Design and Systems," but in the new media skills highlighted by "Information and Communication Technology."

Forty-five percent of eighth-grade girls in public and private schools scored proficient on the science and engineering literacy sections, compared with 42 percent of boys. Overall, 43 percent of all eighth-graders were proficient. 

2014 was the first year that "The Nation's Report Card," as NAEP is known, administered its Technology & Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, a computer-based assessment. It measures students' abilities to grasp technological principles, design solutions, communicate, and collaborate, a category in which girls proved particularly strong.

The inaugural test pushed the boundaries of what is normally included in technology tests, according to Bill Bushaw, the executive director for the National Assessment Governing Board. 

"We often operate under assumptions and we can narrowly define technology," Dr. Bushaw says, but "when you're looking at technology in the broader sense, you're looking at a wider set of skills." That's one part of the explanation for the boost in girls' test scores this time around, he says. 

But girls' gains were not just in the less traditional areas of communication and collaboration, points out Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. "Communication skills may have put girls to some advantage, but I don't totally concur that all the explanation can be entirely attributed to their communication skills," Dr. Carr tells the Monitor in a phone interview. She points out that females "also did well in developing solutions and achieving goals, which are core engineering principles." 

Carr cautions those who might be dismissive of girls excelling in communication and collaboration skills, "because those skills are just an indication of the whole package you need to excel."

But the bigger discovery in the results, education experts say, is further data confirming the enormous gap created by questions of socioeconomic privilege and economic disadvantage. Only 25 percent of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch achieved a score of proficient, compared to 59 percent of more affluent students. And just 18 percent of black students and 28 percent of Latino students scored proficient, compared to 56 percent of white and Asian students.

"That was pretty daunting," says Carr. "The gaps in race and ethnicity were large and unacceptable." 

Girls' performance was "encouraging," Debra Grant, a member of the State Governing Board for Virginia Organizing, who also serves on the Dismantling Racism Issue Team of the South Hampton Roads Chapter, writes in an email. "But more telling for me, as an African American woman, is that a large socioeconomic and racial gap still exists." 

"We must do better in spreading resources to all children so that each and every student might reach her or his fullest potential," she writes. 

One of the things the test also helps to reveal is the extent to which conditions outside the classroom impact student proficiency. For example, a survey given with the test shows that nearly two-thirds of students receive instruction from family members. These students noted that parents and other family members were their primary teachers on how to build and fix things.

"It is important to know where kids are gaining these skills: are they gaining them inside or outside of the classroom?" Bushaw asks. "We asked how often you get to learn about data and systems and the ones who had more opportunities scored higher."

"It's about opportunities and opportunity gaps, and what you can do to minimize these opportunity gaps," he adds. 

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