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High school boys have consistently outperformed their female counterparts on the Math SAT test for the last 50 years going back to the 1960s as the top chart above shows. Further, for perfect scores (800 points) or near-perfect scores (750 to 790 points) high school boy in 2015 (most recent year available) outnumbered girls by a ratio of almost 2-to-1 providing evidence that there are a lot more boys than girls at the very highest levels of math aptitude. I’ve suggested before that the male outperformance on the math SAT test over the last half century could be one reason that females are under-represented for some STEM degrees and careers (with notable exceptions like biology, nursing science, zoology, pharmacy and veterinary medicine) especially the most quantitative fields like chemistry, mechanical engineering, and computer science.
But what about the possible objection that the SAT tests are biased in some way or are not good predictors of future success in college and careers? That objection was addressed in a recent Wall Street Journal article “The Truth About the SAT and ACT” by University of Minnesota professors Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sacket whose main conclusion is that despite all of the myths about standardized tests (SAT and ACT), the research is clear: They provide an invaluable measure of how students are likely to perform in college and beyond. Here are some key excerpts:
…standardized tests tell us a lot about an applicant’s likely academic performance and eventual career success. Saying as much has become controversial in recent years, as standardized tests of every sort have come under attack. But our own research and that of others in the field show conclusively that a few hours of assessment do yield useful information for admissions decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of myths have developed around these tests—myths that stand in the way of a thoughtful discussion of their role and importance.
From the section Myth: Tests Are Not Related to Success in the Real World:
Longitudinal research demonstrates that standardized tests predict not just grades all the way through college but also the level of courses a student is likely to take. Our research shows that higher test scores are clearly related to choosing more difficult majors and to taking advanced coursework in all fields. At many schools, the same bachelor’s degree can be earned largely with introductory courses or with classes that approach the level of a master’s degree. Students with high test scores are more likely to take the challenging route through college.
Tests also predict outcomes beyond college. A 2007 paper published in the journal Science presented a quantitative review across thousands of studies and hundreds of thousands of students, examining the predictive power of graduate-school admissions tests for law, business, medicine and academic fields. It showed that the tests predict not only grades but also several other important outcomes, including faculty evaluations, research accomplishments, degree attainment, performance on comprehensive exams and professional licensure.
From the section Myth: Beyond a Certain Point, Higher Scores Don’t Matter
Some might concede that these skills are important—but only up to a point, beyond which higher scores don’t matter. It’s an understandable intuition, but the research clearly shows that, all else being equal, more is better.
A remarkable longitudinal study published in 2008 in the journal Psychological Science examined students who scored in the top 1% at the age of 13. Twenty years later, they were, on average, very highly accomplished, with high incomes, major awards and career accomplishments that would make any parent proud.
Yet, even within that group, higher scores mattered. Those in the top quarter of the top 1% were more likely than those merely at the bottom quarter of the top 1% to have high incomes, patents, doctorates and published literary works and STEM research.
MP: Although the professors don’t specifically address the significant and persistent gender gap on the math SAT test favoring high school boys, the main conclusion of their research and article — that standardized tests are predictive of future success in college (including the selection of degree program) and beyond — would offer one possible explanation for the significant male over-representation in certain highly quantitative STEM college degree programs and careers. And if that’s the case, then no amount of federal funding, social engineering, and girls-only STEM summer camps will change what might just be a natural outcome.
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