In maths, do primary school assessments promote gender inequalities?


The Ministers of National Education follow one another, but the national assessments in mathematics and French carried out at the start of the year at different levels of schooling (CP, CE1, sixth, second, 1st year of CAP) continue . In 2023, they take place from September 11 to 22 and are even extended, for this start of the school year, to new levels (CM1, 4th ) .

The challenges remain the same: providing teachers with benchmarks of their students’ achievements , providing local “pilots” with indicators allowing them to establish a local diagnosis and adapt their educational policy and, finally, having indicators making it possible to measure, at the national level, the performance of the education system (temporal developments and international comparisons).

These evaluations are the subject of Summary Notes published by the DEPP , which highlight the specific results of each year, but also their evolution over time. The CSEN (Scientific Council of National Education) also produces analyzes of these evaluations and proposes remedial solutions and recommendations. These results are also publicized and often generate, during their publication, debates on television channels or radio stations.

Between September and January, gaps between the results of girls and boys

Regarding assessments at the start of elementary school (CP and CE1), a sad observation has been established for several years: the results of girls in mathematics at mid-CP (January) deviate negatively from those of boys even though, a few months earlier, those of the CP entrance assessment (September) revealed no discrepancy. These gaps continue, even more markedly, at the start of CE1.

This recurring observation is surprising because numerous studies ( CEDRE , TIMSS ) having highlighted performance gaps in mathematics between girls and boys have located them at the end of elementary school, rather than at the beginning (only the study Elfe recently revealed performance gaps in mathematics in CP).

What is striking is that between the start of CP (September), where no difference in results between girls and boys is observed and mid-CP (January), where gaps appear, only four months have passed. How is it possible that in just four months of attending elementary school, girls perform worse in mathematics than boys?

What could be the causes of these differences observed in each cohort of students entering elementary school since 2018? And what may be the consequences of their wide dissemination among students, parents and teachers because, as Charles Hadji already wondered in 2020 on The Conversation, “to what extent these evaluations at the start of the year can be beneficial, for who, and from what point of view”  ?

Evaluative pressure and gender stereotypes

To understand this sad observation, we cannot simply approach it in a simplistic manner because it results from a conjunction of factors which interact with each other at a very specific school moment: entry into the “grande école”. For the CSEN “it is indeed schooling, and not age, which causes this gap”, but what is behind this “schooling” and should we blame a single cause?

Several avenues can be put forward to understand this early dropout of girls. First, girls would integrate the academic codes of the “grande école” more quickly than boys with this evaluative pressure which is characteristic of the French school. More sensitive to this pressure from the mid-CP evaluation, they would therefore perform less well. This pressure could be stronger at mid-CP and CE1 than at the start of CP where teachers, aware of welcoming “kindergarten children”, would be more attentive to creating a non-anxiety-provoking evaluation climate.

Furthermore, the nature and the administration protocol must be questioned to the extent that certain exercises proposed in these evaluations could also contribute to further anxiety for certain students due to their unprecedented nature in primary school (for example, a series of 15 calculations to be carried out in 7 minutes).

Another avenue to consider: the question of constructing the gendered identity of students must also be considered because, even if it varies greatly depending on the students and the social and family contexts, we know that very early on (around 2 -3 years), children are capable of identifying themselves as a girl or boy and that around 6-7 years of age, they would be able to recognize the immutable nature of belonging to a sex group.

We could therefore think that girls, aware of belonging to a group which is subjected to the pervasive stereotype of male predominance in mathematics , would be under the “stereotype threat” which results from this and could thus underperform on mathematics assessments from mid-CP where they are all at least 6 years old.

A third avenue should finally be considered. In the 1990s, the work of Nicole Mosconi and that of Marie Duru-Bellat showed that the differences in performance between girls and boys in mathematics could not be explained without taking into account what was happening in the classrooms, and notably the way the teachers brought mathematics to life there. We could therefore also assume that the practices of CP and CE1 teachers, unconsciously imbued with gender stereotypes, would contribute to making girls less confident in mathematics and therefore to making them less successful, from a few months of elementary school .

The effects of communicating evaluation results

To try to stop this early dropout of girls, it is also necessary, beyond the avenues of understanding mentioned above, to take an interest in the communication that is made about it.

While the findings of male predominance in mathematics are, scientifically, not unanimous (an American meta-analysis covering 242 studies published between 1990 and 2007 , and concerning 1,286,350 individuals showed that girls and boys had similar performances in mathematics), excessive communication from the educational institution and the media could prove even more detrimental to the success of girls in mathematics by making it a proven fact that girls perform less well in mathematics than boys from a very young age and therefore inevitably throughout their schooling.

A vicious circle fatally unfavorable to girls in mathematics would then develop: the more the stereotype of boys’ supremacy in mathematics was reinforced by results on standardized assessments in mathematics, the more it would generate stereotype-threatening behavior on the part of girls and boys. unequal attitudes or practices on the part of teachers, parents and institutions and ultimately , would lead to even more differentiated results between girls and boys in mathematics.

However, standardized assessments are only photographs of students’ knowledge taken at a given time, from an angle µ. It would be damaging, even fatal, for the success of all students to take them as an accurate reflection of their knowledge.

Author Bio: Nathalie Sayac is a University Professor in Mathematics education, Director of the Inspe de Normandie Rouen-Le Havre at the University of Rouen Normandy