Globally there is an increasing monitoring of students’ performance whether by teachers on a day-to-day basis, or through internal and external examinations and international comparisons. This has brought an intense focus on students’ results. The expansion of international comparisons in science and mathematics means these subjects often get more attention than others. Usually this is accompanied by comparisons of boys and girls’ results.

Commonsense in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada says that girls’ underachievement was replaced in the 1990s by boys’ underachievement. However, research shows a more complicated story.

For example, GEA member Marie-Pierre Moreau has shown that, while England and France share similar patterns in achievement of boys and girls, in England the boys’ underachievement debate is prominent, but in France it is non‐existent. So the emergence of the boys’ underachievement debate is not related to a ‘grounded reality’ but is embedded in attitudes to gender, education and citizenship (in France you are a citizen of the nation first and male or female only after that).

Attainment data are very difficult to interpret. So, even though results suggest that the most visible and consistent gender difference is the advantage of girls in reading, gender is only one of the factors that account for achievement. Socio-economic status is an even stronger factor; thus it is important to consider family background alongside gender when supporting children who are ‘underachieving’.

We know from research that we can design tests that on average favour girls or boys or that produce no overall gender differences. The evidence on what sorts of assessment favour boys and girls is mixed. In the UK, people often explain girls’ rising examination scores in the 1990s terms of the increase in coursework. However, the school subjects with no coursework assessment – modern foreign languages – had the largest gender gaps in favour of girls.

As GEA members Becky Francis, Gemma Moss and Christine Skelton wrote in Mythbusters: “Girls’ results were improving prior to the introduction of the GCSE assessment model.Changes in the 1990s reducing the GCSE coursework component had little impact on gender achievement patterns. As a group girls appear to do well at sudden death examinations and coursework assessment.”

Another important finding that goes against commonsense is that girls do worse at mathematics questions set within stereotypically feminine contexts such as fashion and flowers than at those set within stereotypically masculine contexts such as football.

There is less research on equity in formative assessment, such as Assessment for Learning where teachers give feedback to improve learning rather than assigning marks. But teachers ideas of what their students can do have been shown to be influenced by gender stereotypes, such as the ‘rule-following girl’ and ‘the risk-taking boy’, and it is likely that these stereotypes will also play a part in judgements made as part of formative assessment.


Useful Links

Gender and Assessment: This website was set up by a university student exploring issues of gender equity in assessment in Victoria, Australia.

Inside the Black Box: This publication by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam offers an overview of Assessment for Learning although it is not focused on gender equity.

Borat visits Cambridge: In this video the world’s most famous man Kazakhstan (Borat aka Sacha Baron Cohen) talks to academics at one of the world’s elite universities, Cambridge, and uncovers some sexist attitudes along the way. It’s interesting to reflect on how these would impact on tutors’ expectations for female and male students, the references they write etc.

Gender Differences in Educational Outcomes: Study on the Measures Taken and the Current Situation in Europe:  This 2010 report looks at gender and education in Europe, chapter focuses on international comparisons and chapter 5 on patterns in attainment.

Further Reading

Cooper, B. and Dunne, M. (2000) Assessing children’s mathematical knowledge: Social class, sex and problem-solving. Buckingham, Open University Press: In this book, Cooper and Dunne look at primary children’s response to ‘realistic’ mathematics problems set in a context compared with abstract questions in the subject. They draw on qualitative and quantitative research in England.

Elwood, J. (2007) ‘Gender issues in testing and assessment’. In: C. Skelton, B. Francis & L. Smulyan (eds) The Sage Handbook of Gender and Education. London: Sage.

Gillborn, D. and Youdell, D. (2000) Rationing education: Policy, practice, reform, and equity. Buckingham, Open University Press: In this book, Gillborn and Youdell look at the effects of the pressure on schools in England to increase results at age 16.

Gipps, C. and Murphy, P. (1994) A fair test? Assessment, achievement and equity. Buckingham, Open University Press: In this book, Gipps and Murphy look at equity issues across all forms of assessment – including formative, summative and international comparisons.

Stobart, G., Elwood, J. and Quinlan, M. (1992) Gender bias in examinations: How equal are the opportunities. British Educational Research Journal, 18, 3, 261-276: In this article, Stobart, Elwood and Quinlan question whether we should be aiming for equal outcomes in examinations and then discuss the evidence regarding gender differences in assessment looking at external factors -experience and expectation – and internal factors – teaching style, multiple choice and coursework.


Page author: Heather Mendick

Updated: 15th January 2013