Three of four African-American boys in California classrooms failed to meet reading and writing standards during the most recent round of testing, according to data obtained from the state Department of Education and analyzed by CALmatters.
More than half of black boys scored in the lowest category on the English portion of the test, trailing their female counterparts.The disparity reflects a stubbornly persistent gender gap in reading and writing scores that stretches across ethnic groups.
The data provide a unique glimpse of how gender interacts with race and class in mastery of basic reading, writing and listening skills tested on state exams. While California publishesseparate figures on the performance of various ethnic and economic groups, it does not make public a more detailed breakdown of how boys and girls are performing within those groups. State officials say they do not sort the data that way because of complexity, cost and time constraints.
In math, girls have caught up to boys in California and elsewhere, while female students in general maintain a sizable lead over their male classmates in the language arts. While initiatives to encourage girls to learn math and science have received considerable publicity, the gender reading gap is viewed less as a problem warranting action.
“I wouldn’t put this in the same category of severity or concern as other achievement gaps,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher for the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “But there needs to be greater awareness of this.”
The gap spans all grade levels. Boys in high school score better than those in grade school, but girls outperform them by consistent margins at every age—and a higher family income does not appear to even things out.
The gap is not unique to California. In states that administer the same standardized exam as California, girls outscore boys by similar margins. In international reading comprehension exams, girls best boys in nearly every country, and at nearly every age.
The phenomenon is nevertheless worrisome because it may compound other educational disparities California has attempted to close for decades, without success.
“If boys don’t read as well as girls, and if that persists all the way through K-12, it means when you reach certain thresholds like college, it places the males at a disadvantage,” says Loveless. “The ability to read well has a lot to do with the ability to get into college and the ability to do well while you’re in college.”
WHAT EXPLAINS THE POOR SCORES?
Scores aren’t the only educational area in which black boys trail their peers. African-American boys are more likely to be suspended and drop out of school than other demographic groups, in California and elsewhere.
But the reading data is sobering. As early as fourth grade, for example, nearly 80 percent of black boys failed to meet state reading standards. Of all ethnic groups for which the state collects data, black boys trailed black girls by the widest margin.
“Part of this may be structural, in having texts that aren’t relevant to the experiences and legacy of African-American boys,” said Chris Chatmon, founding executive director of the African-American Male Achievement program at the Oakland Unified School District. “When a lot of the curriculum you have access to isn’t familiar, or doesn’t acknowledge your past or your present, you have a tendency not to be engaged with it or want to read it.”
While the state makes it relatively easy for parents to look up the test scores of African-Americans at local schools, the data is not broken down by gender. So it may be difficult to identify schools where black boys are performing well, as well as schools that are struggling.
“The state should report this data,” Ryan Smith, executive director of the education reform advocacy group Ed Trust-West, said via email. “One of the consistent things we find in our research is that schools and districts closing gaps for students of color tend to do more with data, not less.”
The data limitation is not unique to California—detail is lacking in many other states’ public-facing test results. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Education said producing more detailed data is under consideration, but “schools and districts already have the capacity to create student results by all kinds of cross-tabulations.”
ARE GIRLS INHERENTLY BETTER READERS?
Education researchers have multiple theories about why girls routinely outperform boys on reading and writing tasks.
Loveless explains three main schools of thought. One longstanding explanation—that some hidden biological difference in development makes girls inherently better readers and writers—still has support in some quarters.
“That there is something about the male and female brains—that we’re just hardwired differently—if that’s really true … at that point, it’s doubtful we’re really going to be able to fix it,” he says.
However, the supposition that “hardwiring” made boys superior in math and science has appeared to fade over time, as girls in California and elsewherehave matched boys on standardized tests.
A second explanation holds that cultural norms involving masculinity and reading may be at play—that it’s not considered manly to read and write or even excel academically. Several studies have shown that boys increasingly see school as a female pursuit and that various cultural cues depict reading and writing as feminine activity.
But the consistency of the gender gap internationally and over time casts doubt on that explanation. In cultures as varied as those in Finland and Japan, girls still score better on standardized tests.
Finally, many point to how schools are structured—with a lack of sufficient recess to allow high-energy boys to blow off steam, reading materials unrelated tomale interests,and a predominantly female teaching workforce. But Loveless cautions that those arguments stem less from empirical research and more from old-fashioned stereotypes.
And again, the gap persists in foreign education systems, many of which are radically different from ours. In addition, international and state reading tests are routinely tested for gender bias.
That leaves researchers like Loveless without a conclusive answer.
For its part, the California Department of Education is noncommittal on whether the gender reading gap is worthy of the administration’s attention. Differences between boys and girls still pale in comparison to differences found by race, ethnicity and class.
“There have often been gender gaps in performance,” a department spokesman said by email. “These gaps show up in different ways depending on what is being measured. … Some gender gaps are more noticeable within certain race/ethnicities.”
CALmatters is a non-profit journalism venture dedicated to exploring state policies and politics. For more stories by Matt Levin, go to calmatters.org.