According to a recent study of tens of thousands of students and their teachers, girls are often awarded more favorable grades than males with the same academic abilities.
This prejudice against boys may spell the difference between passing and failing classes like math. The Italian researchers caution that it may also have larger repercussions on matters like college admission, career choice, and income.
Their research, which was published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, is the first to show that the issue is systemic and exists in a range of educational settings regardless of the characteristics of the teachers.
Gender disparities in educational achievement are common around the globe. Nevertheless, the extent of the difference varies depending on how achievement is measured.
Girls often outperform males in the humanities, languages, and reading abilities when the results of standardized tests, which have a set scoring system, are employed, while boys score better in math. However, when teachers give grades, females outperform males across the board.
The University of Trento researchers started by comparing the grades almost 40,000 students received on their classroom exams with the scores they obtained on nearly 40,000 standardized language and arithmetic tests in order to determine how teachers’ evaluations tend to favor females.
The 38,957 pupils were in the tenth grade, making them between 15 and 16 years old. The national standardized tests were set and scored anonymously, but the classroom exams were set and graded non-anonymously by their teachers.
In line with previous studies, the girls performed better than the boys in the standardized tests of language, while the boys were ahead at maths.
The teachers, however, put the girls in front in both subjects. The girls’ average grade in language was 6.6 (out of 10), with compares with 6.2 for the boys. In maths, the average grade for the girls was 6.3, while the boys averaged 5.9, which is below the pass mark of 6.
The analysis also showed that when a boy and a girl were similarly competent at a subject, the girl would typically receive a higher grade. The researchers then looked at whether factors, such as the type of school and the size and gender make-up of classes, were driving the gender grade gap.
They also investigated whether the characteristics of teachers themselves, such as how senior or experienced they were and whether they were male or female, helped explain girls’ more generous grades.
Only two factors were found to have an effect – and only in maths. The gender gap in maths grades was greater when classes were bigger. Girls were also graded as being further ahead of boys in technical and academic schools than they were in vocational schools.
None of the other factors had any significant effect in reducing the gender grading gap. Taken overall, the results show for the first time that higher grading of girls is systemic – rather than stemming from one particular failing, it is embedded in the whole school system.
The study’s authors say it’s possible that, in reading, teachers unconsciously reward students exhibiting traditionally female behavior, such as quietness and neatness, which make teaching easier for the teachers. Another theory is that inflated grades in mathematics are a way of trying to encourage girls, who are often seen as weaker in this subject.
The study’s authors conclude that bias against boys in Italian schools is considerable and could have long-term consequences.
“There is a strong correlation between having higher grades and desirable educational outcomes, such as gaining admission to good colleges or having a lower probability of dropping out of school,” says researcher Ilaria Lievore, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology. “Consequently, higher grades are also correlated with other outcomes, such as having higher earnings, a better job, or even higher life satisfaction.”
She adds that although other European countries also grade girls more generously than boys, the reasons for this could differ from place to place and won’t necessarily mirror those in Italy.