Academic performance is a key measure of school success because high performance in school opens doors to postsecondary education and to well-paying jobs. For females to have the same opportunities as males in postsecondary education and in the labor market, it is important for them to be equally well prepared academically. Overall, females have done much better than males in reading and writing, but have generally, though not always, lagged behind in science and mathematics. Concern exists that this gap in science and mathematics may give them less access to high paying jobs, although there are no data to compare this disadvantage with the possible disadvantage faced by males because of their lower reading and writing achievement.
Reading and writing are basic skills required for most jobs and for functioning in contemporary society. Scores on the main assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that females in grades 4, 8, and 12 have consistently outperformed males in reading. The main assessment data from NAEP show females continued to have higher reading scores than males at all three grades, but there were no measurable increases in females' scores when 1992 data were compared to 2003 data at grades four and eight, and there was a decrease in twelfth-grade reading scores for females-from 297 in 1992 to 295 in 2002 (figure B and indicator 5).
Gender differences in reading achievement have been observed internationally as well. In every G8 country participating in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2001, fourth-grade girls scored significantly higher than boys on the combined reading literacy scale. In the United States, girls scored an average of 18 points higher (indicator 8). In each of 28 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries participating in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, 15-year-old females outperformed their male peers in reading (indicator 9).
Females in the United States in grades 4, 8, and 12 also outperformed their male peers in writing in 1998 and 2002 (figure C and indicator 5).
However, females' higher achievement in reading and writing on the NAEP assessments did not translate into higher achievement on AP examinations in English. Although females accounted for a higher proportion of students taking the AP examination in English in 2002, their average score was lower than that of males (figure D and indicator 22).
Proficiency in science and mathematics has become particularly important, as jobs in our technological society increasingly require workers to use complex mathematics skills and scientific knowledge to solve problems (The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics 2000, NCES 2001-517). Although there is a common perception that males consistently outperform females in mathematics, NAEP mathematics scores have not shown this (figure E and indicator 6). In mathematics, the gap between average scale scores has been quite small and fluctuated only slightly between 1990 and 2003.
In 2002, males made up a higher proportion of students taking AP exams in science and calculus. Males also obtained higher average scores on these examinations compared to females (figure D and indicator 22).
Gender differences in mathematics proficiency favoring males were observed internationally in PISA, although the differences were neither as large nor as consistent across countries as the differences favoring females in reading. In 13 of 28 participating countries, males outperformed females; however, this was not the case in the United States (indicator 9).
Trends in science achievement have been slightly different. Among fourth- and eighth-graders, males scored higher than females on the 2000 science assessment, but not on the 1996 assessment. In contrast, among twelfth-graders, males outperformed females on the 1996 assessment, but there was no measurable difference on the 2000 assessment. The score gap between males and females increased between 1996 and 2000 at the fourth and eighth grades, but there was no measurable difference in the size of the gap at twelfth grade (indicator 6).
Overall, females' high school academic programs in mathematics and science are at least as challenging as those taken by males. Female high school graduates in 2000 were more likely than their male peers to have taken algebra II, biology, AP/honors biology, and chemistry (figure F and indicator 21). Males, by contrast, were more likely than females to have taken physics. The percentage of male graduates who took calculus increased from 6 to 12 percent and the percentage of female graduates who took calculus increased from 4 to 11 percent between 1982 and 2000.