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Gender gaps in achievement for AP math exams may lead to fewer women in STEM careers. Mint Images/Getty Images

Girls still fall behind boys in top scores for AP math exams

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

After decades of growth, the number of high school girls who take Advanced Placement math exams is now almost the same as the number for boys. In 1997, 83 girls for every 100 boys took an AP math exam. By 2019, that number rose to 96 for every 100 boys.

But when it comes to getting top scores on an AP math exam, boys still outnumber girls. In 1997, 52 girls for every 100 boys made the top score. By 2019, that number rose to 69 for every 100 boys. This is what I found in my peer-reviewed study. It was published in Journal for the Education of the Gifted in 2021.

After analyzing the test scores for over 10 million students who participated in the AP math exams from 1997 to 2019, I examined the rates of changes in participation and top achievement in the AP Calculus AB, Calculus BC and Statistics tests. My study predicts that if this trend continues, it may take up to 60 years to close the gender gap among top scorers in the Calculus BC exam and roughly 30 years in the Calculus AB and Statistics exams.

Why it matters

Gender-related gaps in general K-12 math achievement have been gradually diminishing to none since the 1960s. However, more men major in STEM fields – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – than women. As an example, according to a 2021 report published by the National Science Foundation, when it comes to engineering degrees, women only earned 12% of bachelor’s, 18% of master’s and 18% of doctorates in the field in 2016. A joint report done by the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found that gender differences in school mathematics contribute to significant disparities in educational attainments in STEM subjects. This is particularly true for AP math courses, which are among the most common college level classes taught in U.S. high schools. In light of those reports and my findings, I suspect in order for women to be better represented in STEM careers, it will take more than just increasing their participation in AP math courses. Rather, the focus should be more on empowering more girls to get the top scores on AP math exams, as those scores can be an important predictor of who pursues a STEM career. Ways to empower more girls to get the top scores include increasing their math confidence, interest and early math achievement.

What is next

In order to more rapidly close the gap between girls and boys who get the top scores on AP math exams, educators must discover and implement more effective ways to prepare girls for advanced math courses.

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