It Doesn't Add Up: First Study Of Talented Young Mathematicians Shows Boys Out-Perform Girls

February 02, 1998

There's new evidence that when it comes to mathematics, the sexes apparently do not begin school on an equal footing.

In the first long-term study of mathematically precocious young children, researchers from the University of Washington have found significantly more boys than girls with very high levels of math talents, and discovered that even when children are exposed to an enrichment program to foster their abilities, math-talented girls don't catch up with their male counterparts in the first two years of school.

The researchers also discovered that girls and boys who show an early aptitude and interest in math are no "flash in the pan" whose interest wanes once they are in a formal classroom setting where other children are learning the basics.

"Children who have advanced math reasoning skills when they start school are likely to remain ahead compared to other children, and their skills didn't decrease over the years we measured," said Nancy Robinson, principal investigator of the study and director of the UW's Halbert Robinson Center for the Study of Capable Youth.

Robinson said that the gender disparity was noted early on when Puget Sound-area youngsters in Washington state were being recruited as subjects for the study. A total of 778 preschool and kindergartners were nominated, primarily by parents, and special efforts were made to enlist girls. To be eligible for the study, children were required to score at or above the 98th percentile on at least one of three screening tests. Of the children screened, 348 qualified and 60 percent, or 210, were boys. A number of boys were randomly excluded to balance the gender makeup of the study. Eventually, 276 children -- 148 boys and 128 girls -- made it through the entire two-year study.

The gender disparity was apparent in another way. The very brightest of the bright mathemeticians tended to be boys. The top 5 percent of those selected for the study, using any of eight different measures, were virtually all boys.

"We hoped that the girls' skill levels, as they got experience and encouragement in math, would pick up. But they didn't catch up. The very top scorers tended to be boys, both before and after being given the enrichment program," said Robinson.

"We don't know how to explain this gender difference, " she added. "It was already there when we started with these children. Once in school, it is possible that the boys were getting more attention from their teachers than girls. This is known both from other studies and from our own observations. Boys demand more attention by their classroom behavior -- they are all over the place -- while girls are quieter."

Children in the study were ethnically diverse: 74 percent white, 15 percent Asian-American, 5 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 1 percent American Indian and 1 percent other. The children were randomly assigned to control or intervention groups. The youngsters in the control group were tested at the beginning of the study and then two years later.

Youngsters in the intervention group were placed in Saturday clubs which met for 2 1/2 hours about 28 times over two years. The clubs were designed to help the children see the world as a mathematical place and themselves as mathematicians. Among other things, the participants learned to see patterns and shapes in the world around them and how to transfer knowledge from one domain to another, such as taking a word problem and expressing it as an equation. These youngsters also were tested at the beginning and end of the study.

Robinson said the researchers were equally interested in the control group and emphasized that children with advanced math skills in both groups stayed ahead of or even increased their advancement in math compared to their classmates in school.

"Most likely, children with mathematical talent are receiving more individualized attention in the classroom than anyone previously thought, and these children are given opportunities to move ahead at their own pace in early elementary school. School may not be an exciting place, but it is not knocking the props out from under them."

Other members of the research team conducting the study were Robert Abbott and Virginia Berninger, professors of educational psychology; Julie Busse, a graduate research assistant in educational psychology, and Swapna Mukhopadhyay, assistant professor of education. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement.


For more information, contact Robinson at (206) 543-4160 or at

University of Washington

Related Children Articles from Brightsurf:

Black and Hispanic children in the US have more severe eczema than white children
A presentation at this year's virtual American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting reveals the disparities that exist for Black and Hispanic children when it comes to Atopic Dermatitis (AD), commonly known as eczema.

Black children with cancer three times less likely to receive proton radiotherapy than White children
A retrospective analysis led by investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital has found racial disparities in the use of the therapy for patients enrolled in trials.

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health: First Europe-wide study of children confirms COVID-19 predominately causes mild disease in children and fatalities are very rare
Children with COVID-19 generally experience a mild disease and fatalities are very rare, according to a study of 582 patients from across Europe published today in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

Children not immune to coronavirus; new study from pandemic epicenter describes severe COVID-19 response in children
- While most children infected with the novel coronavirus have mild symptoms, a subset requires hospitalization and a small number require intensive care.

How many children is enough?
Most Russians would like to have two children: a boy and a girl.

Preterm children have similar temperament to children who were institutionally deprived
A child's temperament is affected by the early stages of their life.

Only-children more likely to be obese than children with siblings
Families with multiple children tend to make more healthy eating decisions than families with a single child.

Children living in countryside outperform children living in metropolitan area in motor skills
Residential density is related to children's motor skills, engagement in outdoor play and organised sports. that Finnish children living in the countryside spent more time outdoors and had better motor skills than their age peers in the metropolitan area.

Hispanic and black children more likely to miss school due to eczema than white children
In a study that highlights racial disparities in the everyday impact of eczema, new research shows Hispanic and black children are more likely than white children to miss school due to the chronic skin disease.

Children, their parents, and health professionals often underestimate children's higher weight status
More than half of parents underestimated their children's classification as overweight or obese -- children themselves and health professionals also share this misperception, according to new research being presented at this year's European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Glasgow, UK (April 28-May 1).

Read More: Children News and Children Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to