MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Okay. A pop quiz. How many different solutions are there to the following equation: X2-15=0? There's a common notion that boys would be more likely than girls to get the right answer. But a new study suggests that that's just plain wrong. We'll give you the answer in a few minutes, but first, here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Janet Hyde studies how people do on standardized tests, but she's also taken tests. So I asked her, what was her score on the math SAT.
Professor JANET HYDE (Psychology, University of Wisconsin): So you really want me to tell you?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Out of the possible 800?
Prof. HYDE: I had a 780. And the only reason I didn't have an 800 is because I solved the last problem, but they called time before I could fill in the answer.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hyde is a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. She loves math, she majored in math in college. And so she was not thrilled a few years back when she heard about some remarks by the president of Harvard University. They were widely perceived as suggesting that the main reason that women were underrepresented in fields like engineering and physics was that women's abilities in things like math just didn't match men's.
Prof. HYDE: I was annoyed and I thought, well, everybody has a right to their opinion, but this is really a question that should be settled by data.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hyde had done that kind of research. She knew that past studies of math performance did find some gender differences. Girls and boys were pretty much equal in elementary school, but around the start of high school, the boys pulled ahead on complex math problems. Still, those findings were from old data from two decades ago. After the firestorm at Harvard, Hyde wondered, what about today's girls? Thanks to No Child Left Behind, every kid in every state is tested in math every year.
Prof. HYDE: So we wrote to the State Departments of Education in all 50 states and asked them for all their data on math performance.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hyde and her colleagues got results from 10 states from more than seven million kids in grades two through 11. They crunched the numbers, and the bottomline…
Prof. HYDE: Contrary to the stereotypes that are held by many parents and teachers, we simply found no gender differences at any grade level in any state.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the state tests actually didn't have a lot really complex math problems. So Hyde also looked at recent data from another testing program - the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those tests had tougher questions, and when the researchers looked at those…
Prof. HYDE: Once again, we had gender similarities.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The results are reported in the journal Science, and some other researchers say, they're pretty convincing. Jacque Eccles is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.
Professor JACQUE ECCLES (Psychology, University of Michigan): The data that they're presenting sort of documents the fact that, for most math problems that are likely to be confronted in typical courses that kids take in the high school years, we have essentially wiped out the gender differences that were there before.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eccles says this is probably happening because girls are increasingly choosing to take the toughest math classes available.
Fred Dillon is a math teacher at Strongsville High School in Ohio, he's taught for 31 years.
Mr. FRED DILLON (Math Teacher): And I have seen in my classes that the number of females in the elective courses I teach - like in AP Calculus or something -has increased steadily over the years. And it's pretty much 50-50 all the time now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One teenager who's taken those kinds of classes is Patricia Li, from San Jose, California. She's going to be a high school senior this fall, but she's spending the summer at MIT doing math research. She says she's never really gotten a vibe that it's weird for a girl to like math.
Ms. PATRICIA LI (Student): I don't think my parents, like, have any of those stereotypes. And from teachers, I don't think so. From other students - maybe. But in school, I think the issue is more like that people in general don't like math rather than boys are better at math than girls.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She likes math, she calls it fun and beautiful, but she doesn't know yet if she wants to make a career of it.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And if you've been waiting, here's the answer to that math problem from our introduction. There are two possible solutions to that equation.