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Boys, Girls and Grades: How Do Girls and Boys Compare across the Province

In British Columbia, gender-based differences in school performance do exist. They are systematic, extensive, and persistent.

The same data from the Ministry of Education upon which A Secondary Schools Report Card for British Columbia and The 1999 Report Card on British Columbia's Secondary Schools 11 were based may be used to measure gender balance in academic performance.

Results from the Grade-12 provincially examinable courses 12 show that, on average, girls out-perform boys by statistically significant margins on nearly all of the Report Card indicators. Grade 11 enrollment patterns in Physics and other language studies suggest that the stereotypical course preferences (the very thing gender-equity initiatives were developed to combat) remain firmly entrenched. Recent results on the Ministry of Education's Provincial Learning Assessment Programme (PLAP) reading and writing tests appear to support the notion that girls outperform boys in lower grades as well. 13 What specific conclusions can we draw from the province-wide data?

Girls Out-perform Boys in English 12

Girls, on average, receive significantly higher grades than boys on both school-based assessments and provincial examinations in the critical subject area, English language arts.

Chart 1: Average Marks (%) in English 12

During the six years covered by this study, girls, on average, significantly out-performed their male counterparts in English language arts. Chart 1 provides the details. For each school year, the average school and examination marks in percentage points are shown. The columns plot the by-gender school marks and the lines plot the by-gender examination marks. As the chart shows, while over-all performance in English 12 has varied from year to year, results have remained strongly positive in favour of the girls. The consistency and strength of this female advantage is of particular significance when it is remembered that successful completion of English 12 is required of most students for graduation. 14 Since participation is required, no self-selection is possible. Hence, results in English language arts provide the most complete picture of differential performance between boys and girls.

Girls Receive Higher Grades on School-based Assessments

Girls receive higher grades on school-based assessments in all subjects regardless of their relative performance on the provincial examinations. The general rule seems to be that if an assessment or award is made at the school level, girls achieve better results than boys do. A close look at the relationship between school marks and examination marks in all subject areas is striking. Chart 2 compares examination and school marks for boys and girls during the same six-year period. It shows the difference between the results for boys and girls in percentage points for each of the eight most popular provincially examinable courses. One set of bars indicates the gender-based difference in the school mark awarded and the other indicates the gender-based difference in the examination mark awarded. A value of zero would indicate perfect gender balance in the result. Where boys are favoured by a difference, the bar extends to the left of zero. Where girls are favoured it extends to the right.

Chart 2: Differences between Examination Mark and School Mark

Girls substantially out-scored boys on the English 12 examination; girls were only marginally better on the French and Physics examinations; they were marginally out-performed by the boys in Mathematics and Biology; and they were more significantly out-performed in Chemistry, Geography, and History. 15 Yet, the girls outperformed the boys on the school mark in every one of these subjects.

Girls and Boys Do about the Same
in Mathematics

If the popular perception that girls do relatively poorly in Mathematics was ever true, the situation has certainly changed.

Chart 3: Differences in Selected Results in Mathematics 12

Chart 3 gives the details of the average by-gender results in Mathematics over the six-year study period. The difference between boys and girls (in percentage points) is shown for each of the five specific results for Mathematics 12: Participation Rate, Average Mark, Failure Rate, Honours Rate, and Standard Deviation. (Note that the participation rate refers only to the provincial final examination.) Again, one set of bars indicates the gender-based difference in the school mark awarded and the other indicates the gender-based difference in the examination mark awarded.

While it is still the case that a greater proportion of boys take Mathematics 12 than do their female counterparts, the by-gender examination results are reasonably close. Indeed, the difference in examination marks has favoured the boys by less than one percentage point during the study period. While girls failed less frequently than did boys on the examination, the boys achieved a higher percentage of honours marks than did the girls.

Not shown in Chart 3 is the improvement in girls' average examination scores relative to those of the boys. Girls improved their average score faster than boys during the study period. In fact, in 1997 and 1998, the girls actually achieved higher average scores on the Mathematics 12 provincial examinations than did the boys.

As expected, the school-based Mathematics results favour the girls. Notice particularly the Honours rate. This measures the percentage of students receiving either an A or a B grade. While boys were awarded slightly more honours grades on the examinations, girls received considerably more honours grades on the school mark.

Boys Are Not Graduating with Their Class

In order to graduate, students in British Columbia must meet certain conditions set by the Ministry of Education. The determination of each student's eligibility to graduate is largely the result of school-based assessments. School marks account for 60 percent of the final mark on provincially examinable courses and 100 percent of the final mark in all other courses. Thus, if our previous findings hold--that female students fare better when the assessment or award is school-based--then females should graduate with higher frequency than males.

Chart 4: Graduation Rates

Chart 4 shows that this is the case. It plots the graduation rate (as a percent of enrollment) for each of the school years. The columns report the female results; the line reports the male results.

Females have had a significantly higher rate of graduation over the study period. The particular graduation rate illustrated here calculates that proportion of the Grade-12 students enrolled on September 30 who should, by reason of their previous success, and given normal progress through Grade 12, actually graduate with their class. A substantial difference in this outcome based on gender is, for this reason, puzzling. Why are boys dropping out in their final year at a rate significantly greater than are girls? 16

Languages for Girls;
Physics for Boys

To what extent do our schools successfully encourage students to participate in important subject areas not traditionally popular with their gender? To answer this question we looked at by-gender enrollment over time in Grade-11 Physics, traditionally shunned by girls, and Grade-11 second-language studies, a subject area in which boys are routinely under-represented. We chose these two subjects because we believe that both have considerable value to students regardless of their post-secondary ambitions. Thus, they are not--or should not--be of interest solely to students anticipating entrance to university after high school.

Chart 5: Enrollment (%) in a Second Grade 11 Language

Chart 5 compares the percentage of boys and girls taking a Grade-11 language course. It shows the proportion of students enrolled in languages for the six school years. Female enrollment in languages is consistently between 15 and 20 percentage points higher than male enrollment.

Chart 6: Enrollment (%) in a Physics 11

Chart 6 compares the percentage of boys and girls taking Physics 11. Across the province, despite nearly a decade of effort to encourage more girls to become involved in the sciences generally, female enrollment in Physics 11 is actually decreasing.

In short, there appears to have been no significant move toward enrollment parity in these two important subject areas.

While we agree that in those schools where a variety of courses are offered, their selection is each student's responsibility, we offer these observations as a stimulus for discussion. What role can and should schools play in equalizing the by-gender enrollment in these and other subject areas? It may be that, with more effective counselling and class design, students would select courses because of desired educational outcomes rather than on perceptions of gender appropriateness.

Significant Differences in Academic Performance Remain

It is apparent that, across the province, there are important differences between the academic outcomes of girls and boys. In the following pages, we propose a measure of school performance that will enable us to rate the schools with respect to academic gender balance. The accompanying school-performance tables tell us that in some schools those differences are smaller, in others, greater. For those who believe that all students should be enabled to succeed without being limited by their gender, we provide quantitative evidence that effective practices are being used in some British Columbian schools. It appears that some administrators, teachers, and counsellors may have found more effective means of taking into account gender differences in their school organization, lesson plans, and teaching styles. Those who have found successful techniques will score highly on this new rating. For those who are not aware of the gender-linked differentials in their schools, we provide some evidence to help them recognize the issue and assess their practices. In either case, the results of this study will be of value to parents who, along with their students, have a vital interest in the continued improvement of our schools.

11. (1) A Secondary Schools Report Card for British Columbia. Peter Cowley, Stephen Easton, and Michael Walker, Public Policy Sources 9. Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute, 1998. (2) The 1999 Report Card on British Columbia's Secondary Schools. Peter Cowley, Stephen Easton, and Michael Walker, Public Policy Sources 22. Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute, 1999.

12. The Ministry of Education determines the final mark for each student in provincially examinable courses by combining the examination mark (worth 40 percent of the total) with the school mark provided by the school (worth 60 percent of the total). The Ministry does not release any student's examination mark before it receives the school mark from the school. This means that the school mark cannot be adjusted after the fact to compensate for a poor showing on the examination. The importance of this marking sequence will become clear in the discussion of the results that follows.

13. B.C. Students Score Well in Reading and Writing Assessment. Ministry of Education News Release NR82-98, November 13, 1998.

14. Exceptions to this requirement: (a) Programme Cadre students may use Français Langue 12 to fulfil their Grade-12 level Language Arts requirement; (b) a relatively small number of students take Communications 12, a less academically rigorous course; (c) another alternative, Technical and Professional Communications 12 was introduced as an examinable subject in the 1997/1998 school year.

15. For the sake of clarity, eight of the 17 provincial examinations were considered for the purposes of this section. They account for over 85 percent of all the provincial examinations written during the five years covered by this study.

16. While boys still trail girls in their rate of graduation, the difference has decreased during the study period. In fact, both genders have enjoyed a significant increase in their graduation rates. System-wide improvement of this size and speed is rare enough to warrant further study. We hope that this race toward a perfect graduation rate reflects increased learning success rather than extensive grade inflation at the school level.

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Last Modified: Thursday, May 20, 1999.