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Curriculum Update

Study: Girls and Boys Perform Equally in Math Competitions

A new study found that female elementary students perform as well as their male counterparts in a series of math competitions, versus one-shot contests, refuting some previous studies that show females usually lag behind males.

“Gender Differences in Repeated Competition: Evidence From School Math Contests,” co-authored by Joe Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, tested 500 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in 24 elementary schools in the Alpine School District in American Fork, Utah. The study was released in the February 2013 edition of Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

The researchers also received previous test scores of the students to compare how similarly talented boys and girls performed. For the study, students were paired with an opposite-sex classmate to see who answered the most questions right during a five-minute math quiz. Though the competitors looked even on paper, boys seemed to have the edge in a competitive setting by usually scoring one point higher on a 10-question test in the first round.

But once the first round was over, girls performed as well or better than boys for the rest of the five-round contest, Price says. “Previous studies have found that boys did better in competition, but in our study, we found that gender gap was short-lived,” says Price. “We still can’t tell the difference whether or not boys just work harder under competition or girls tend to shy away from it.”

Price says the study used standard numeric math questions from the federal No Child Left Behind standards, as well as word problems, in which the study’s authors found no gender gap.

Because of the results, Price says district administrators should not shy away from holding or participating in math competitions. Teachers can encourage and help female students through practice rounds.

“There are thousands of competitions in education that benefit students by motivating them to practice math and by getting them involved,” says Price. “Districts shouldn’t be apprehensive about exposing female students to competition.”