Gender Gaps in California ELA CST Data

Gender-based theory suggests that, in general, boys and girls learn differently.  More specifically, it suggests that “by nature” (meaning hardwired into brain structure and brain chemistry) the average boy and girl require significantly different educational experiences to learn successfully.  To the extent that modern research has examined gender biases in the classroom, this research has generally centered on issues and solutions regarding female performance in math and science.  That this research has taken place and that changes have been made to improve female-friendly teaching strategies in math and science is laudable.  However, many current gender theorists argue that these changes are only a beginning at creating fairness in the educational system.  They argue that the educational experience common in most American classrooms today generally favors girls, particularly as it relates to reading and writing.  There are a number of ways to examine these arguments for accuracy.  One is to take advantage of the vast quantities of valid and reliable data that has been gathered in pursuit of national educational standards, standardized testing, and accountability.  This paper will test whether a performance gap exists in reading and writing in the statewide, standardized testing results of California public schools.

The Literature

As mentioned, the dominant gender-related empirical research centers on gender and mathematics, specifically on the closing of a historic gap where girls underperform in mathematics.  One study compares math test scores between China and the United States.  This study concludes:

The results show that in neither the US nor China are there gender differences in eighth grade math-achievement test scores. In China, there are no gender differences in mean college entrance examination math scores among high-school seniors, while in America, the mean SAT-Math score among male high-school seniors has been consistently higher than those of their female counterparts. In both the US and China, there are gender differences among the top math performers on college entrance examinations; boys are over-represented (Tsui, 2007).

Another recent study found:

Girls’ math scores average 10.5 lower than those of boys (2% less than the mean average score for boys), but the results vary by country …. The gender gap is reversed in reading.  On average, girls have reading scores that are 32.7 higher than those of boys (6.6% higher than the mean average score for boys) (Guiso, Monte, Sapienza, & Zingales, 2008).

However, that study focuses on imputed cultural causes of the results gap and almost exclusively on mathematics (in spite of the significantly larger gap in reading cited in the study).  These studies are indicative of the general quantitative research environment: little focus on gender, what focus there is is on the relatively smaller (and male favoring) mathematics gap, and almost no quantitative focus related to nature-based explanations.

Michael Gurian, on the other hand, is the father of the nature-based, gender based educational movement.  His research is generally qualitative and exclusively secondary.  Gurian says,

In a classroom of 30 kids, about five boys will begin to fail in the first few years of pre-school and elementary school.  By fifth grade, they will be diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD/ADHD, behaviorally disordered or “unmotivated.”  They will no longer do their homework (though they may say they are doing it), they will disrupt class or withdraw from it, they will find a few islands of competence (like video games or computers) and overemphasize those (Gurian, 2005, para. 13).

However, this point of view is the center of much uncertainty.  The same newspaper seven months earlier published this:

Some educators have said that the concern over boys is exaggerated and that boys end up doing just fine, holding top jobs and being paid higher average salaries than women.  Others, however, have said boys face an unprecedented literary crisis that limits their opportunities, citing studies showing that the gap between the sexes — dating back to the 19th century — has increased markedly (Strauss, 2005, para. 5).

Ironically, it seems that even when the concept of a gap in literary abilities between boys and girls is generally acknowledged, it is frequently dismissed as unimportant.


In the new world of No Child Left Behind and other standards-based educational reforms, such gaps are easier to quantify and should therefore be harder to miss.  The emphasis on fairness and equality has brought careful scrutiny to learning differences.  However, gender has largely escaped quantitative examination in spite of the ever-growing list of broadly administered, standardized assessments.  This paper will examine California’s NCLB-mandated standardized testing results for reading and writing through the lens of gender.  Identifying a statistically significant gap in the California standardized read and writing test results could be an important first step in concentrating a conversation on the causes and cures for whatever performance gap is identified.

Methods and Data

California’s main statewide, standardized test is called the California Standards Test (CST) and its read and writing portion is called English Language Arts (ELA).  In this study, the CST results will be examined.  These results are available on the California STAR testing website (California Department of Education [CDE], 2010).  A number of tests are covered on this website but the test of choice for this study is the CST ELA test.  This is one of 22 tests given by the state with results available on this website.  The CST ELA test is given each year to all California public school children in second through 11th grade.  Nearly 5 million students are tested in California each year with results available on this site.  Just less than 4.6 million students are included in the 2009 ELA results.

Each year, the California Department of Education (CDE) publishes the results of the CST exams in a variety of formats.  The most widely distributed and publicized describes the test results in terms of the performance levels (e.g. “proficient,” “basic,” etc.).  A very important report is the number of children scoring proficient or better on a given exam.  This is both a good intuitive measure for student (and, thus, school) success and the critical number in terms of Federal requirements from the No Child Left Behind legislation.  It is also a very interesting descriptive number for this study but it is not helpful in establishing the significance of the gender gap in ELA, if any.

The CDE also publishes “Technical Reports” which offer much more detailed data including mean test results by population and subgroup, standard deviations, numbers of students surveyed, and other detailed discussions of data and methodologies.  This report is ideally suited to a quantitative examination of a possible gender gap in CST English Language Arts results.

Each year, “all students enrolled in grades two through eleven in California public schools on the day testing begins are required to take the CSTs, the CMA … , or the CAPA” (CDE, 2010, p. 2).  The CAPA is limited to “students with severe cognitive disabilities who cannot take CSTs even with a number of incorporated accommodations” (, 2008).  The CMA is “taken by students with disability who meet the required eligibility criteria laid by State Board of Education” (, 2008).  The CST is taken by the vast majority of students and by all students without disabilities or other special circumstances requiring alternatives.  In 2009, “each grade-level CST was administered to approximately 400,000 to 500,000 test-takers” (CDE, 2010, p. 2).  This study examined those California Standards Test English Language Arts 2009 results.  It looked specifically at the subgroup “Gender” and compared the mean results for “Male” to those for “Female.”  These subgroups contained between them results reflecting 4,557,726 individual tests, divided roughly evenly by gender.  The question was did the results of the 2009 SCT ELA test show a significantly different result for males and females?


An independent samples t-test was conducted to evaluate the hypothesis that gender had an effect on California statewide test scores on the English Language Arts test of the California Standards Test (CST).  The test was significant across all grade levels tested.  For example, in second grade, t = -64.61,  p <0.01.  Male students (M = 347, SD = 63), on average, had lower scores than females (M = 359, SD = 62).  Results for all grade levels of the CST-ELA test are shown in Table 1.  Each grade level shows substantially the same result, males underperforming females significantly (p < 0.01).

Table 1 – Means and Standard Deviation by Gender, CST ELA 2009

(CDE, 2010, p. 292-310)


            There are two logical extensions of these results.  First, standardized testing data exists for every state and, to a more limited extent, on a national basis.  This hypothesis and these procedures could be extended nationally.  Given the level of significance of the California results and California’s relatively large population, it is not a great leap of faith to expect similar findings in each state examined.  Demonstrating and defining this new gender gap would be a much-needed contribution to the ongoing efforts at every level of education to eradicate inequities and unfairness where they are found.

Second, there is a growing body of work directed specifically at traditional methods of teaching reading and writing and how those traditional methods could be improved with the male brain in mind.  A very logical follow up on these findings would be research directed at interventions in this gender gap.  It would be enormously helpful to begin to build a body of research on teaching strategies and their impact on reading and writing performance with specific regard to gender differentials and differing outcomes.  To the extent that we are beginning to identify a gender gap in reading and writing achievement, it would be ideal to begin to identify teaching strategies that create improved outcomes for all reading and writing participants, especially for boys.


            Gender-related learning differences and outcomes are important and under-examined aspects of educational diversity.  The issues surrounding females and math and science learning have been more aggressively examined and apparent progress has been made in narrowing identified performance gaps in this area.  However, the issue of reading and writing performance and males has received little quantitative attention and less remediation.  This study hypothesized that there would be a performance gap between boys and girls in reading and writing, with boys underachieving compared to girls.  This hypothesis was tested using the standardized testing data from the California Standards Test’s 2009 English Language Arts test.  This study concluded that there is a highly significant achievement gap between girls and boys on these tests of reading and writing with boys trailing girls, as expected.  This suggests that similar examinations of other standardized testing data from other states would be appropriate and add to the robustness of understanding.  It also suggests, based on the very large sample size of this study and the very high significance levels, that it would be appropriate to begin identifying and scientifically testing strategies to improve comprehension and retention of reading and writing instruction, with a particular focus on strategies that are effective for boys.


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