Why Girls Get Better Grades Than Boys

It’s “soft skills,” not test scores, says a new study.

One of the main tenets of the alleged “end of men” has been girls’ and women’s success in school. Women enter and graduate from college at higher rates, and girls tend to get better grades in primary and secondary school. But boys tend to do better than girls on standardized tests, so what do girls have that boys don’t? New research suggests an answer: attitude.

Economist Christopher Cornwell and his coauthors looked at the grades and test scores of several thousand children, who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade. They also studied the children’s scores on a standardized test of “approaches to learning,” which measured “non-cognitive skills” like persistence, creativity, independence, concentration, and ability to follow the rules.

They found that boys scored as well or better than girls in tests of math and science (with white boys especially outpacing white girls). But girls get better grades in math and science in the early years of school, and though the gap closes later on, boys never outperform girls as much as their test scores suggest they would. In reading, girls tend to do better on tests, but their grades are even higher than this disparity would predict. Basically, something besides test scores is giving girls an edge.

That something is the “approaches to learning” scores. Girls far outpaced boys on this scale, and in statistical analysis, this gap explained the discrepancy between what test scores would predict and what grades actually showed. Girls’ non-cognitive skills were giving them a leg up over their male peers.

Cornwell and his co-authors note that this advantage could have long-lasting effects: “If, as the data suggest, young girls display a more developed ‘attitude toward learning’ and teachers (consciously or subconsciously) reward these attitudes by giving girls higher marks than warranted by their test scores, the seeds of a gender gap in educational attainment may be sown at an early age, because teachers‘ grades strongly influence grade-level placement, high-school graduation and college admission prospects.” Girls may be getting into college at higher rates than boys in part because they pay more attention in kindergarten.

Cornwell told BuzzFeed Shift that the most common reaction to his study has been to call for more single-sex classrooms, or more male teachers at the primary-school level. His study, however, cannot speak to either of these recommendations (there weren’t even enough male teachers in the sample to assess whether the gender of the teacher mattered). As far as what would help, Cornwell says “there’s probably no substitute for having a teacher being sufficiently aware of students as individuals and their individual needs.”

Non-cognitive or “soft” skills have gotten lots of attention lately — and they’re not just about pleasing teachers. Another recent study found that boys who misbehaved in eighth grade earned less than their more obedient peers later on. “Sometimes we place this emphasis on just having knowledge,” says Sian Beilock, psychologist and author of Choke: What The Secrets Of The Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To. But “it’s not just what you know, it’s also being able to apply it when you need to.”

Part of Hanna Rosin’s case for an “end of men” lies in the idea that women have been better at developing soft skills like flexibility and cooperation. But although non-cognitive skills appear to be helping girls in school, they haven’t closed the wage gap between men and women or given women parity on corporate boards. Beilock says institutional biases and other obstacles to women’s success may end up being more than their soft skills can overcome: it may be that “some of the roadblocks that women face in workplace are so strong that even if they are excelling in these areas, it’s not changing anything.”

She argues for a holistic view of Cornwell’s research, one that focuses on helping both boys and girls succeed: “educators definitely need to pay attention to the notion that lots of things go into building successful students. It’s not just what we’re memorizing or what’s measured on an achievement test.”

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