Opinion: Carolina Beat

Where The Boys Are

RALEIGH — New 2012 SAT scores, released weeks ago, unleashed a fusillade of commentary about the state of American achievement. Many hammered the decline in reading performance; others celebrated the largest-ever pool of students to take the SAT.

Missing from the debate, however, was a close examination of entrenched gender differences among SAT test-takers; such differences offer important and counterintuitive feedback on boys’ achievement.

Scores defied conventional stereotypes: Boys outperformed girls not just in math, but in reading as well. Boys led by a little (five points) in reading, and a lot (33 points) in math. This year’s reading performance was no statistical fluke; boys have outscored girls in both reading and math for the past 40 years.

Such stable test-taking supremacy will cause many to conclude that all is well in boy world: that boys rule the honor roll, the Advanced Placement classroom, and the college acceptance letter. But they don’t, not by a long shot. Aside from their SAT prowess, boys trail girls on most in-school academic measures.

Consider what data collected by the College Board, publisher of the SAT, revealed about college-bound seniors. Girls were much more likely than boys to earn an A+, A, or A- grade point average; boys were overrepresented among students earning Cs, Ds, and Fs. Compared to boys, girls pursued more AP/Honors courses in English, history, science, foreign language, and even mathematics.

Top honors are going overwhelmingly to girls: 70 percent of high school valedictorians now are female, according to CBS News. And girls comprised 57 percent of 2010 college enrollments, federal data show; this gender imbalance is projected to increase.

Why are boys — even those who cultivate college dreams — so prone to underachievement? Explanations abound, but boy advocates say we’ve created a classroom culture that ignores critical boy-girl learning differences and mainly rewards the things girls do well. Bored and disengaged, boys tune out or act out. Too many drop out.

By the time the SAT rolls around, these boys have vacated the school building. They aren’t sharpening No. 2 pencils; they’re mulling the unemployment line.

Feminist groups surely will seize on the latest reading and math scores as proof that girl power is enfeebled, even after years of concerted efforts to work toward gender parity in education.

But this argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Of course, we must continue our efforts to help girls achieve. The mother of a son and a daughter, I want a level academic playing field for both boys and girls.

But I’d say right now, the girls are all right. Boys, however, need our targeted attention if they ever are to realize their full potential.

Several years ago, a cadre of educators and prominent boy experts launched a national campaign, The Boys Initiative, to ensure they get it. The Boys Initiative is working to raise awareness of gender-based learning differences, as well as the importance of mentoring and instructional flexibility in the classroom.

What might such flexibility look like? Some schools are experimenting with single-sex classrooms for certain subjects, a reform promoted by Boys Initiative board member and author Michael Gurian. Parental support and high expectations are also critical, as is the recruitment of male role models.

Small schools of choice, such as those in New York City, are emerging as a promising urban reform. A 2010 report from the Gates Foundation found these schools boosted engagement and graduation rates for students, including minority boys, who are at greatest risk of giving up and dropping out.

What’s the bottom line? We know where the boys are. Now we need to make sure they don’t stay there.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.