August 14, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
While black, Hispanic and low-income children again lagged far behind others on statewide mastery test scores, another group of students also remained mired in a chronic - though often less noticed - achievement gap.
Boys continued to trail girls by substantial margins in reading and writing on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. The pattern has persisted since Connecticut first started keeping track of scores by gender in 2000, and is consistent with longstanding patterns on national tests.
The gap was particularly acute in writing, where just over half, 54 percent, of boys in grades 3 through 8 met the state goal, compared with 71 percent of girls. On the reading test, 59 percent of boys met the state goal, compared with 64 percent of girls.
"It doesn't surprise me," said Andrew DeLucia, a sixth-grade teacher at Doolittle School in Cheshire. "I think girls are much more motivated to write, and there are a lot more topics they're interested in." With boys, he said, "If they're not writing about sports, they lose interest."
Across the nation, the achievement gaps for racial minorities and other groups under the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have been well chronicled, but the gap between boys and girls has been largely a footnote. No Child Left Behind, for example, holds schools accountable for achievement gaps by race, income, disability status and English-speaking ability, but does not require schools to measure results by gender.
"It's not a gap we have been focusing enough attention on," said Frances Rabinowitz, an associate commissioner in the state Department of Education.
Still, the gender gap has begun to emerge recently in research reports, news reports and discussions among educators.
The issue has gained attention on America's college campuses, too, where women now make up 57 percent of enrollment - a complete reversal of enrollment patterns a generation ago.
For years, educators worried about an achievement gap for women in science and mathematics, but that gap, at least in some cases, has begun to close. Women are still underrepresented in many engineering and technology fields, for example, but have made gains in areas such as biology and medicine.
On the latest Connecticut Mastery Test, girls matched boys in mathematics, with 58 percent of each group meeting the state goal.
"Boys have problems with reading and writing. Girls have had problems with math and science. We've done something for the girls. We can do the same for boys," said Judith Kleinfeld, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and director of a national consortium known as The Boys Project.
In writing, "Boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group are falling far behind girls of similar backgrounds," Kleinfeld wrote in a recent paper for the White House Conference on Helping America's Youth.
In elementary and secondary schools across the nation, girls still trail boys in mathematics but outscore boys in reading and significantly outperform them in writing, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card.
In 2002, for example, 42 percent of eighth-grade girls met the proficiency standard in writing on that test, twice the rate of success among boys.
And while the results of a new writing test required for the first time last year as part of the SAT college entrance exam are not yet available, girls outscored boys on an optional SAT subject area test in writing taken in the past by some students.
"It's a huge problem," Kleinfeld said. The literacy gap between girls and boys "has been very large since the beginning of time," she said. "Think back to Tom Sawyer and Becky."
Most boys develop verbal skills later than girls do and may not be ready for the intensive reading instruction that some schools are now demanding as early as kindergarten, she said.
For boys who lag, she said, one strategy would be to "keep them in kindergarten for two years, or keep them out of school until they're ready."
In addition, Kleinfeld and others say, boys' reading habits are geared more toward non-fiction - subjects such as sports or adventure - while girls often prefer novels and short stories.
"I like mystery books. I read the Nancy Drew series," said 11-year-old Mary Margaret Stoll, who finished fifth grade at Thompson Brook School in Avon this year. She also said she likes books such as "Natalie's Secret," part of a series of books "that has, like, more girls' stuff on the front, and boys don't like to read that."
Many teachers, aware of this, are starting to seek more literature that appeals to boys, said Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
"As little as seven or eight years ago in the average elementary school classroom, the majority of reading material was fiction," he said.
Barbara Snyder, a reading teacher at Buttonball Lane School in Glastonbury, said, "One thing that interests boys more than girls is reading informational texts.
"We've addressed that - teaching how to read non-fiction," she said. "Because boys don't want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal. They can read short sections."
In writing, too, educators see differences between girls and boys.
"Girls do more writing - no question about that," said Sterling, citing a study last year by the PEW Internet & American Life Project, which reported that girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are far more active writers on Internet blogs than boys are.
Sterling said boys "often get more engaged in history and in technical and scientific kinds of writing." Girls are more likely to bring a richer context to their writing, examining a range of ideas, he said. "It's personal writing. ... A lot of the [Internet] content females are writing is what I would call situational writing, exploring the world around them."
George Coleman, Connecticut's new interim education commissioner, said that while boys appear to be "equally excited about the things around them, they're not as prone as young women would be about recording things. We need to think a little more strategically about how do we encourage them ... to share some of their thoughts on paper."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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