The sad reasons why women may perform worse on tests than men.

Standardized tests: sexist by nature?

If mock college-entrance exams were the actual exams, more women might get top scores, new research has found.

But the same wasn't true for men in the study. And that could add to the idea that the way standardized tests work is gender biased.


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Researchers at the National University of Singapore analyzed how 8,000 young men and women performed on China's national college-entrance exam. They tracked the scores for both the actual exams and the mock ones, which students took a month beforehand.

They found that women were much more likely to perform better on the mock exam than the actual one. Nearly 1 in 6 women who didn't qualify for entry into a top school would have qualified if the mock exam scores had been the ones that counted.

But what's to blame for this discrepancy?

While the study didn't pinpoint a clear reason why this disparity exists, previous research may give us a hint.

And as NPR noted, the big c-word may be a culprit. Competition, that is; it favors guys.

Many studies have found that "women on average are simply not drawn to competition as much as men are drawn to competition," NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explained. "So studies in the United States, for example, show that if you have a highly competitive setting, fewer women will step forward — and this is the really important bit to remember — even when the women are likely to do really well in the competition."

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This gender disparity could play a role in how women approach (and feel during) a real college entrance exam — arguably one of the biggest "competitions" a person can participate in.

So, are women to blame for their own shortcomings? Do they need to just, you know ... up their competitive edge with the big boys?

Not really. As Vedantam noted while citing other research, it's not that men are naturally more competitive than women. They tend to be more so in more patriarchal (read: sexist) societies.

Photo via iStock.

So, as one theory goes, the more patriarchal a society, the more competitive the men are, which may collectively have a negative effect on the women they're among.

But there are other factors that can hurt women in the test-taking process, too.

In the U.S., scores from the SAT tend to underpredict the success of women once they're actually in higher education. That may be because many standardized tests operate in ways that put girls and women at a disadvantage.

Men tend to score higher on multiple-choice questions (they're more willing to guess on questions they don't know the answer to). They also benefit from timed testing; one study found that when time limits were removed from the SAT, girls were far more likely to see their scores increase than boys.


Photo via iStock.

Negative stereotypes don't help, either. When a girl takes a math test, the stereotype that girls are worse at that subject may (subconsciously) give her more anxiety because the pressure's on for her to disprove the negative assumption. The same stereotype can apply to say, a black or Latino student who's been told by society they're somehow less "college material" than their white counterparts.

This has been dubbed "stereotype threat." And, ironically, it only perpetuates these fallacies by increasing test-taking anxiety among oppressed groups. Stereotype threat may help explain why research found that girls were more likely to do worse on their AP calculus exams if they checked the gender box before completing the exam rather than after.

Something needs to change.

If research tells us one gender (or any group, for that matter) is at a disadvantage when it comes to the way we test, shouldn't we be rethinking our ways?

It's not a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of passing or failing. And that can make a world of difference.

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