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Who’s to Blame for Boys’ Low Academic Test Scores?

“Girls go to college to get more knowledge. Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” I heard this rhyme over and over growing up, and I have to admit that it has played a role in forming my view of the differences between the sexes. As an adult, I assumed this idea—that girls were more conscientious and dedicated to their schoolwork, and therefore performed better in the classroom—was simply a biased view without any evidentiary basis, but now research shows that girls do in fact perform better than boys do on standardized tests. Why should this be so, and what can we do to change it?

Ladies First
Girls are outperforming boys academically by leaps and bounds these days. According to a 60 Minutes report by Lesley Stahl, Hanover High School in Massachusetts illustrates a trend occurring all over the country. At the graduation ceremonies in June 2002, a girl took the podium as school valedictorian for the ninth year in a row. Three out of four of the class leadership positions, including the class presidents, were girls, as were almost all of the officers in the school’s National Honor Society chapter. The yearbook editor was also a girl.

That year, girls also took home nearly all of the school’s honors, including the science prize. The school’s advanced placement (AP) classes, including calculus, are often composed of 70 to 80 percent females, according to principal Peter Badalament. And in AP biology, there was not a single boy in 2002. “[Girls] tend to dominate the landscape academically right now,” said Badalament, even in math and science.

While Stahl notes that there are statistically more boy geniuses than girl geniuses, she also points out that more boys than girls are struggling academically. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school, and four times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And women outnumber men in higher education, earning 56 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 55 percent of graduate degrees.

Why are smart young men failing in school?

Now’s the Time for Boys’ Lib
We live in the era of girl power, when young women are brought up to believe they can be whatever they want if they just work hard enough, but Dr. Michael Thompson, a school psychologist who writes about the academic problems of boys in his book Raising Cain, believes that we’ve given too much special attention to girls and neglected boys in the process.

“Girls are being told, ‘Go for it, you can do it’ … They are getting an immense amount of support,” Thompson says. “Boys hear that the way to shine is athletically. And boys get a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be masculine and what it means to be a student. Does being a good student make you a real man? I don’t think so … It is not cool.”

Christina Hoff Sommers, a former college professor, now at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees with him. “All the rhetoric in the gender equity movement is about how schools shortchange girls. There was almost nothing about how we could reach out to boys …Gender equity is about making sure that both boys and girls have equal access to educational opportunities.”

O Captain, My Captain!
Thompson offers a solution to the gender gap in education: schools need to hire more male teachers. “I had a teacher at my school, and this teacher said, you know, ‘I’m the first man they’ve ever known who liked poetry and taught poetry,’” he said.

Franklin Goodman, who teaches seventh-grade math and science at Jefferson Academy in Long Beach, California, suggests another measure: single-sex education. During academic periods at Jefferson, boys take classes in one room and girls in another. “First of all, there aren’t any female distractions for [the boys],” Goodman told Stahl on 60 Minutes.

And while this method may seem a bit old-fashioned, there must be something to it: test scores for boys at Jefferson Academy have jumped dramatically since it began the practice of separating genders for learning.

No Boy Left Behind
With education becoming more and more standardized these days, the fact that boys are being left behind in the classroom is increasingly obvious. They’re performing poorly, and though we don’t know exactly why, some, like Thompson and Sommers, believe it has to do with the amount of special attention paid to girls and the lack of positive role models available to young men. In order to help our boys succeed, educators agree, we must be diligent about addressing this issue in concrete ways.


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