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EDUCATION | THE RESEARCH FILE

On Girls, Boys and Mathematics

June 25, 1997

The academic battle between the sexes rages on in a new study that shows boys and girls think differently when it comes to solving math problems. And the differences surface as early as first grade.

Researchers Martha Carr and Donna Jessup of the University of Georgia videotaped 58 first-grade students trying to solve 10 addition and 10 subtraction problems. They found that there were gender differences by January of the first-grade year. Individually and in groups, girls were more likely to use "overt" methods such as counting on beans or their fingers, while boys were more likely to use "retrieval" methods, meaning they relied on memorized answers.

Boys tended to increase their use of retrieval even if the method did not produce success, the researchers found, while girls seemed more concerned about being right. At this age, however, the study did not find a gender gap on one count--in the number of problems solved correctly.

The different performance of boys and girls on standardized math tests later in their school careers has generated controversy for years. A 1991 federal study found that high school girls scored five points lower than boys on such tests. Some groups have leaped on such findings as evidence that the tests, such as the college entrance SAT, are biased against girls.

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