Boys outperform girls in maths beginning in early primary school, a trend pronounced among high achieving children, a New York University study reports. The pattern was first highlighted in the late 1990’s, with this new analysis finding that teachers attitudes towards female students are also part of the problem.

The study, published in AERA Open and conducted by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, showed that teachers give girls’ maths skills lower ratings, when girls and boys have similar achievement and behaviour. Analysis of two sets of data collected ten years apart shows that teachers’ lower ratings of female pupils is likely contributing to the gender attainment gap in maths. The study authors included Sarah T. Lubienski, Jennifer D. Timmer, and Martha B. Makowski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Emily K. Miller of West Chester University. The lead author was Joseph Cimpian.

Commenting on the findings, Joseph Cimpian said:

“Despite changes in the educational landscape, our findings suggest that the gender gaps observed among children who entered kindergarten in 2010 are strikingly similar to what we saw in children who entered kindergarten in 1998.”

The study was part of a larger research project called The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tracks child development and educational outcomes over time. The latest findings mirror that of the 1998-1999 analysis, which showed that boys and girls began reception with similar maths proficiency, with disparities developing by seven years old, where girls fell behind. Again, this gap was particularly marked among high achieving children.

 “The gender gap at the top of the math achievement distribution deserves special attention, as this is where future mathematicians, computer scientists, and other STEM professionals tend to reside – professions in which women remain underrepresented,” Cimpian said.

The current study, compared data from the 1998-1999 class and the 2010-2011 class, comprising 5000 and 7,500 5-7 year olds respectively. Researchers studied the early development of gender gaps in maths attainment, when the gaps appeared, where across the range of attainment gaps develop and whether these disparities have altered in any way over time. Additionally, the study looked at two potential contributors to gender achievement gap sin maths: student’s learning behaviours and teacher expectations.

Researchers observed that the genders gap among high achievers in math develops before students start reception and worsens during primary school. This trend has not improved over the last decade. In both the 1990’s and 2010’s cohorts, girls represent less than a third of students with high maths attainment as early as the second term of reception. This gap widened as female pupils progressed in their education, with girls making up only a fifth of high achievers by year two in the 2010-2011 group.

When boys and girls were similar in their behaviour and academic performance, teachers in both cohorts underrated the maths skills of girls as early as year one. Researchers say this suggests that teachers must perceive girls as working harder than similarly achieving boys in order to rate them as equally competent in maths. Commenting on this element of the study, Cimpian said:

“While more research is needed to better understand the link between teacher expectations and gender gaps, this study replicates an earlier study of ours suggesting that the widening of the gender gap is partially due to the lower expectations that teachers hold of girls in math.”