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Educational Attainment: Gender differences in educational achievement
Literacy in schools
Literacy comprises both reading and writing tasks. In a 1980 Australian Education Council study of 10 year olds, girls outperformed boys on all literacy tasks tested.1 These outcomes were still evident in a similar survey, which included children of the same age, conducted by Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) in 1996. In this national survey of Year 3 and Year 5 students, girls gained consistently higher marks than boys.2 The greatest difference between boys and girls was for writing, with higher median estimates for Year 5 girls (382) than for Year 5 boys (345). The relative difference was similar for the Year 3 group. These differences were still apparent in older children. ACER analysed results, on items common to both tests, from studies of 14 year olds conducted in 1975 and 1995. These results showed that boys obtained lower scores than girls in reading comprehension tests, with the gap widening slightly from two percentage points to three. In 1975, the mean score was 65% for boys and 67% for girls. By 1995, the percentages were 63% and 66% respectively.3
LITERACY LEVELS IN SCHOOL STUDENTS, 1996
Source: ACER, Mapping Literacy Achievement, 1997.
Numeracy in schools
Direct evidence as to whether boys perform better at mathematics than girls in Australian schools is limited and is compounded by the fact that girls have tended to prefer less intensive mathematics courses.
A study of trends in participation and performance in NSW Higher School Certificate courses between 1982 and 1994 found that girls generally preferred the less difficult courses (such as Mathematics in Society and Mathematics in Practice), while the most difficult courses (such as 3 unit and 4 unit Mathematics) were favoured by boys. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the willingness of girls to participate in more difficult mathematics courses has been increasing. Over the period the proportion of girls (of all students) participating in the 3 unit mathematics courses increased from 36% to 46% and in 4 unit mathematics from 20% to 35%.4
While the above indicates that boys are still more likely to study higher level mathematics than girls, various recent studies of test results of high school students completing the same tests, have generally found little difference between the results obtained by girls and boys, and that where differences (albeit minor) were observed they have not always favoured boys.3,4,5
Post-compulsory schooling outcomes
There are a number of measures on which the educational outcomes of boys and girls, after the compulsory years of schooling, can be compared. These include Year 12 retention rates and educational participation rates for 15-17 year olds; HSC or Tertiary Entrance (TE) scores in Year 12; literacy levels for 15-19 year olds; and TAFE and higher education participation and pass rates for 17-24 year olds.
Year 12 apparent retention rates
Apparent retention rates to Year 12 were higher in 1996 (66% for boys and 77% for girls) than in 1986 (46% and 52% respectively), with a peak in 1992. In 1986 the Year 12 retention rate for girls was six percentage points higher than that for boys. By 1996, the difference had widened, with the rate for girls 11 percentage points above that for boys.
YEAR 12 APPARENT RETENTION RATES
Source: Schools Australia (cat. no. 4221.0).
School and TAFE participation
Year 12 retention rates do not provide the whole story on the educational participation of people aged less than 18 years. Staying on at school is not the only option for students after they complete Year 10. Some start an apprenticeship or commence studies at TAFE. Boys are more likely than girls to make this choice. For this reason the difference between their respective post-compulsory education participation rates is not as large as their Year 12 retention rates would suggest. When the participation rates of young people aged 15-17 in school and TAFE are combined, participation by boys was 83% in 1996 compared with 86% for girls. The participation rate by both sexes has increased since 1986 (74% for boys and 71% for girls).
EDUCATIONAL PARTICIPATION AND GRADUATIONS, 1996
Source: Participation in Education, Australia (cat. no. 6272.0); Schools, Australia (cat. no. 4221.0); Transition from Education to Work (cat. no. 6227.0); DEETYA, Selected Higher Education Student Statistics, 1997.
HSC and TE scores
Students' successful completion of Year 12, as measured by their TE score, is crucial to their chances of gaining entry to the course of their choice at a university. Attainment of a university degree has been associated with greater employment opportunities, higher salaries and shorter durations of unemployment (see Australian Social Trends 1997, Education and employment).
Comparisons at the national level have been difficult due to the different assessment and reporting systems used in each State. However, a national study in 1993 analysed data from up to five 1991 final year high school subjects in each State.5
The conclusions were that girls achieved superior results in English, Geography and Economics, but results in Chemistry were mixed. In Mathematics there were more boys achieving at the highest score levels.
Changes over time were also assessed in a study of TE scores in NSW from 1981 to 1994.4 Overall, the study found that the mean TE score for girls was slightly higher than boys in 1981 (0.6 marks) and this difference gradually increased to 4.4 marks in 1991. There was a large increase in 1992 to 12.2 marks and by 1996 the difference in mean TE scores was 19.4 marks.
The increasing gap in their mean TE scores was not just because girls improved in non-traditional subjects, but because their relative performance improved in many different courses.
Boys still dominated at the higher TE score levels but their representation decreased and there is now a greater proportion of boys at the lower level. In NSW in 1994, boys represented 53% of Year 12 students with a TE score between 440 to 500 (the highest level), compared with 60% in 1981. During the same period girls dominated in the TE scores from 220 to 439, while boys dominated in the scores below 220.
Boys comprised 64% of the top 500 students in the HSC in 1988, but by 1993 this had decreased to 54%.4 By 1995 there were half as many boys (57) placed first in NSW in individual courses as girls (122).6
Several explanations have been suggested to account for the overall changes in HSC results. These include: changes to the HSC curriculum, assessment or scaling processes; increased retention rates; changes to TE score calculations; and the impact of different patterns of subject choices.6 Some of these changes may have favoured girls' approaches to learning, their preferred mode of assessment and their more broadly based subject choices. Analysis of many of these factors suggests that, while they may account for some of the current difference, as yet there is no clear explanation why the relative performance of boys in the HSC has been falling over recent years.
Literacy levels of young adults
Literacy skills influence students' ability to participate in post-compulsory education, particularly at the higher levels (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Literacy skills).
In the 1996 ABS Survey of Aspects of Literacy, three types of literacy were assessed: prose, document and quantitative literacy.
As was the case for other age groups, results for 15-19 year olds from the prose and quantitative literacy tasks supported the commonly held view that girls possess higher skill levels in language tasks while boys perform better in quantitative tasks. Interestingly, the greatest differences occurred at opposite ends of the skill spectrum for these two tasks. For prose literacy the proportion of boys with very poor skills (Level 1) was double that of girls (20% compared with 10% respectively). For quantitative literacy, however, the proportion of boys with good to very good skills (Level 4/5) was almost double that of girls (15% and 8% respectively). For document literacy the results were less clear cut. There were more boys than girls at both ends of the skill spectrum, whereas girls were concentrated in the middle skill levels.
LITERACY SKILL LEVEL OF PERSONS AGED 15-19, 1996
Source: Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia (cat. no. 4228.0).
TAFE participation and pass rates
A further area of comparison of gender differences in educational achievement is participation and success in further education, such as TAFE and university.
Males aged 17-24 were more likely than females in this age group to enrol in a TAFE course, whereas the reverse was true for university courses. The participation rates in TAFE were only slightly higher in 1996 (15% for males and 9% for females) than in 1988 (13% and 8% respectively). In 1996, males aged under 25 years had lower pass rates than females for most fields of TAFE study, including Mathematics and Computing. Males had higher rates for Engineering and Built Environment. However, given the high level of participation by males in Engineering and Built Environment the average pass rate for males and females was similar (84% and 85% respectively of subject modules attempted were passed).7
Higher education participation, pass rates and graduation
Both males and females in the 17-24 year age group had steady increases in their university participation rates from 1988 (11.7% each for males and for females) to 1996 (17.3% and 20.9% respectively) (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Gender differences in higher education). The rates for female students have increased more than those for males and have been higher than those for males since 1989.
Females had greater success at their studies, passing a greater proportion of their units than males in almost all subjects, even those in which there were low levels of female participation. In 1993, for those aged under 25, females passed 89% of their units and males passed 83%. Females of all ages also passed a higher proportion of their units than males of all ages in each level of study and, with the exception of Veterinary science, each field of study. For example, females passed 88% of their Engineering units and 85% of their Science units, which included Mathematics. Males passed 84% and 79% respectively.8
The number of higher education graduates of each sex reflects the greater number of females entering universities since 1989. In 1996, 63,000 males and 82,000 females graduated from universities.9
PARTICIPATION RATES IN TERTIARY INSTITUTIONS(a)
Source: Transition from Education to Work, Australia (cat. no. 6227.0).
1 Bourke, S. F., Mills, J. M., Stanyon, J. & Holzer, F. 1981, Performance in Literacy and Numeracy: 1980, Australian Education Council, Canberra.
2 Masters, G. N. & Forster, M. 1997, Mapping Literacy Achievement, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
3 Marks, G. & Ainley, J. 1997, Reading comprehension and numeracy among junior secondary school students in Australia, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
4 MacCann, R. 1995, A longitudinal study of sex differences at the HSC and SC: trends over the last decade, NSW Board of Studies, Nth Sydney.
5 Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia, 1993, Gender equity in senior secondary school assessment (ESSSA) project cited in R. MacCann, 1995, A longitudinal study of sex differences at the HSC and SC: trends over the last decade, NSW Board of Studies, Nth Sydney.
6 NSW Board of Studies 1996, The report of the Gender Project Steering Committee, NSW Board of Studies, Nth Sydney.
7 National Centre for Vocational Education Research Ltd, 1997, Australian Vocational Education and Training Statistics 1996: in detail, (unpublished data), NCVER Ltd, Leabrook S.A.
8 Department of Employment, Education and Training, Higher Education Series, Report no. 24, October 1995, DEET,Canberra.
9 Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 1997, Selected Higher Education Student Statistics 1997, DEETYA, Canberra.