New research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University suggests that girls get better grades in elementary school than boys because of their classroom behavior.
"The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,''" said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study''s authors.
"You can think of ‘approaches to learning'' as a rough measure of what a child''s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child''s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. I think that anybody who''s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that."
The study, co-authored by Cornwell and David Mustard at UGA and Jessica Van Parys at Columbia, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students'' performance on standardized tests in three categories - reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers'' assessments of their students'' progress, both academically and more broadly.
The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.
The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or "how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills."
They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts. This difference can have long-reaching effects, Cornwell said.
"The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher''s assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities," he said. "It''s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it''s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned."
The study has been published in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources.