Comparative Performance

Much of the furore raised over boy's underachievement in VCE Mathematics has been raised by comparing the mean scores of boys and girls. For example, in the Executive Summary of the Government's inquiry into boys' education, Boys: Getting it Right, they cite 'results in most subjects at Years 10 and 12, where girls are achieving higher average marks in the majority of subjects at Year 12 (p16).

Given that mathematics is not a compulsory subject at this level, when the standard deviation and enrolment numbers are taken into account it becomes obvious that the issues involved are more complex than simply averages. In each of the mathematics subjects in Year 12 (Further, Mathematical Methods and Specialist) male enrolment outnumber female. As the difficulty of the subject increases, fewer girls enrol. More boys are choosing to study mathematics, and more boys are choosing the more challenging subjects.

When examining enrolment levels at the different tiers of GCSE Mathematics, Janette Elwood cites Storbart's argument that 'the larger female entry in the intermediate tier represents an underestimation of girls' mathematical abilities by teachers who perceive girls to be less confident and more anxious of failure in maths than boys and more adversely affected by final examinations.' Given the wider spread of results for boys, it is not illogical to suggest that a similar phenomenon is at work in Victoria: the boys choosing to undertake mathematics represent a broad range of abilities while the (fewer) girls undertaking the more challenging levels tend to be those of higher abilities.

I do not intend to suggest that boys are definitely not underachieving at the VCE level; indeed, there are higher retention rates for girls at school. Rather - for within the field of mathematics - the assertion that male students are really suffering at the VCE level would perhaps be more justified by comparing boys expected achievement (based on their mathematical/science scores in the GAT) and actual achievement. However, even this may be suspect: see GAT and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy for a brief discussion on GAT results.