Doesn’t add up

The National NAPLAN results have revealed girls in all age groups have again scored lower than boys in numeracy testing, despite outperforming in all other learning disciplines.

The numeracy results follow a trend over the last five NAPLAN tests, with girls consistently scoring lower than boys across all age groups.

Results of the last five NAPLAN numeracy scores by gender. Graphic: Macey Turner.

Andrew Murray is a year four teacher at Margaret River Primary School. He says numbers alone can only reveal so much about student performance.

“As a general rule I think both boys and girls are equally capable of achieving the same level in maths,” he says.

“I think sometimes the data can look like boys might achieve at a higher level, but I tend to ignore that data and take each individual student as an individual.

“I think as a society there’s a bit of a stereotype that maths is a boys subject and it’s important for boys to do well in maths… so maybe it’s a mindset thing, that girls have a bit of a mindset that it’s not that important for them to try hard in maths or bust through barriers and persevere,” Mr Murray says.

Mr. Murray says NAPLAN, while providing some important information, shouldn’t replace a more holistic assessment of a student’s capabilities.

“It’s helpful for State Governments and National Governments to kind of get a snapshot of where kids are doing well and where they’re not doing so well, and as a whole school it can give you some important data, but on an individual basis I don’t think it’s all that relevant,” he says.

Nicola Armstrong is an Associate Professor in data science at Curtin University. She says there’s a definite gender bias when it comes to her classes, with much more men enrolled than women.

“I think it’s a society thing, I think that girls are much more likely to say, ‘oh I can’t do maths, I’m not good at it’ and certainly when you look at other countries, they don’t seem to have such an issue or problem with females doing maths at universities.”

“It definitely seems to be a gender stereotype in Australia and a lot of Western countries as well.”

Sarah Dale and Lily Edwards are second year Mechatronics Engineering students at Curtin University. Both did specialist mathematics in school and enjoyed the subject throughout their schooling.

Lily Edwards (left) and Sarah Dale (right) say there are still surprisingly few women in engineering. Photo: Macey Turner.

“I was quite shocked, because I thought it was a thing of the past. I was shocked that was the ratio. I thought it was going to be like 30-40% women, it’s just not. When we counted for one our exams, we counted 8 out of 100, so that’s 8%, which isn’t great,” Ms Edwards says.

The pair say young women who are considering doing STEM subjects at university should not be deterred by the lack of women.

“I’d say just do it, it’s for you, it’s not really about the men. You’ll find friends, we met on our first day.”

Sarah Dale.

Mr. Murray says he doesn’t get caught up in the gender story and believes it’s more important for teachers to focus on changing a kid’s thinking when it comes to mathematics.

“They just get this story in their head that they can’t do it, if you work on that mindset you can change that mindset,” he says.

Engineering students at Curtin University try and answer the riddle: Are girls worse at maths?

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