MAUHS seeks to overcome gendered views on math

Friday August 2, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Educators are becoming conscious of a gender gap in standardized math test scores at the high school level. But that realization is a positive, according to Kathryn Schonbeck, head of the math department at Mount Anthony Union High School.

"We're just going to become very aware in the math department," Schonbeck said, after recent years' data from the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) that indicates a disparity in proficiency rates between male and female students in their junior year. The latter cohort testing 12 percentage points below the former in 2012.

"Just becoming aware often shifts things," Schonbeck said.

Action steps in the upcoming year include monitoring and reporting progress, two new pilot course offerings, and researching strategies for encouraging girls in math and science -- amid a nationwide effort toward putting more women in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Partly an issue of "high-stakes testing"

While final class grades are similar between male and female students, the high school also typically sees fewer girls taking higher level Advanced Placement offerings in math. Social conditioning and peer pressure partly contribute there.

For the most part, Schonbeck said, "it's not cool to be smart -- and it's definitely not cool to be smart and female."

Teachers leading seminars have taken up the topic as a discussion starter.

Oftentimes, to change the class compositions, it just comes down to marketing the higher level course offerings. "They just have to be told (about available AP classes)," said Donna Leep, director of curriculum instruction and assessment for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.

Although statewide scores show similar proficiency levels between male and female students, national trends often reflect a similar disparity as at MAU during "high-stakes testing," such as the timed NECAP, Leep said, where data indicates girls and other demographic groups (race and socio-economic, for example) do less well.

"It is the fear of high challenges," Leep continued, with the brain function saying, "wait a minute, I need to take my time. And so they (often) run out of time."

Trend for boys up; for girls, flat

The trend over the past five years has seen improvement in male students' math proficiency at MAUHS -- from 28 percent proficiency in 2007 to 37 percent in 2012 in the 11th grade, in line with the state average -- but the graph recording female proficiency has remained flat at around 25 percent. But "we're all humans and we can all learn math," Leep said -- and do equally well, or excel.

The two educators said they were looking at how girls learn differently from boys. And while targeting girls' math performance, the responses have a positive contribution all around.

Schonbeck said female students tend to learn better in classrooms with less pressure. She said formative assessment techniques allowed students to answer in multiple ways like "gallery walks" or on whiteboards that were less intimidating than raising your hand and being mistaken (or right all the time). "I think using formative assessment will help a lot of kids."

New and returning math programs at the high school will also contribute, including "short block" lab and skill classes taken alongside semester-long offerings.

The after-school "after math" program addresses some gender equity issues because "it's not the classroom setting where you're on stage," Schonbeck said.

Two new pilot classes this fall include a co-taught science/algebra offering aimed toward college preparation with intensive support, and a full-year geometry course, at the same college-prep level as a semester of geometry but at a slightly slower pace (and with more seat time in the end).

Leep said one-to-one mentoring often boosted students' confidence and made a measurable impact on their success. "It's their confidence that has built their success."

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