University of Pennsylvania Study Finds Gender Gap Among High Performing Math Students

Recent research led by Ashley Swanson, an assistant professor of health care management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has found that a large gender gap exists among high performing high school math students. The study examined various cohorts of high school students that participated in the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) from 1999 to 2017. The AMC is offered in about 3,000 high schools across the country and participating students often participate in the competition from 9th through 12th grade.

The results of the study showed that among the top 500 highest-scoring 9th grade students, there was a 4.6-to-1 boys to girls ratio. That gap widens as the students get older; among the top 500 highest-scoring 12th grade students, there was a 7.4-to-1 boys to girls ratio.

If a student performs well enough on the AMC, they move on to an invitational exam. The researchers found that the students that just barely miss the cut-off to progress to the next competition are more likely to drop out. For boys, there was a 10 percent drop out rate compared to a 15 percent drop out rate for girls.

The researchers believe a number of different factors are causing this gender gap. Dr. Swanson stated, “One way of answering this question is to investigate what happens mechanically. Is it that high-performing girls are more likely to drop out of the contest? Is it that talented girls are less likely to drop into the contest over time after the ninth grade? Is it that talented girls are less likely to improve enough from year to year to stay highly ranked within the program? The short answer is yes. Each of those factors cuts against girls and contributes to a widening of the gender gap over time.” Dr. Swanson believes that future research on this topic is necessary as it may provide answers to gender gaps in not only math competitions, but in college majors and salaries as well.

Dr. Swanson holds a bachelor’s degree in statistics and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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