Despite media and political attention to the plight of the underachieving boys, I assert that grade mean differences between genders are the result of the selective nature of final year mathematics. The quality of the girls undertaking mathematics is higher, but fewer mid- and lower-level girls are undertaking mathematical studies in Year 12. Moreover, the current structure of the VCE encourages better performance for males by the weighting of examinations in comparison of coursework. (Although the current system is more fair than previous examination-only systems.)
The VCAA's VCE Assessment Guidelines state that 'Assessment should be fair, valid, reliable and transparent for all students' (VCAA, 2003, p5). The concept of a fair assessment is especially important in the highly competitive final years of schooling, when results are used in university and job placements. If the assessment used in VCE Mathematics studies favours a particular gender, then the tool is clearly not adhering to the VCAA's principles.
However, it must be recognised that there are wide variety of conflicting considerations in setting assessment of this type. One aspect to 'fairness' is the prevention of cheating; examinations are perceived as reducing the opportunities for unfair advantages of this kind. The cheating scandal of 2002, when 50 students faced disciplinary hearings over leaked examination papers (Accused 15 wait to hear from VCE Tribunal, The Age, 13/12/2003), has proved that lapses of security can happen. This undermines one of the major arguments in support of examinations in schools.
Given each gender's relative strengths, perhaps a fairer assessment solution would involve a parallel assessment structure; where students can enrol in an examination or a investigative stream with standardising used to make the results in each strand comparable. Clearly there are problems with that approach, however there the merits require investigation in order to create a system that is equitable for all. Any changes to assessment would - given the nature of the VCE - be given extensive public and scholarly scrutiny. It is important that policies be grounded in actual research and implemented with care and sensitivity - otherwise resulting backlashes can hurt more than they help. (Weaver-Hightower, 2003). However, despite there being evidence that girls are disadvantaged by the assessment tools used in final year mathematics, I believe that it is unlikely that any changes will be made in the near future. Certainly, with the momentum towards "giving boys a fair go" it is unlikely that there would be general public or political support.