Teachers systematically assess and grade girls and boys differently. Not because the boys are necessarily academically inferior – but because they don’t meet the school’s social norms to the same extent as girls. (Illustration photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix)
Teachers systematically assess and grade girls and boys differently. Not because the boys are necessarily academically inferior – but because they don’t meet the school’s social norms to the same extent as girls. (Illustration photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix)

Why boys get poor grades

A Norwegian school researcher may have found an explanation.

Published

Several studies have previously shown that when primary school teachers make subjective assessments of their pupils, boys fare worse than they do on objective tests like exams and national standardized tests.

But why do teachers undervalue boys’ achievements?

Only in physical education do boys get better grades than girls in Norway. In all other subjects, the teachers seem to believe girls do best.

This situation affects future opportunities for a lot of boys.

Ann Margareth Gustavsen is a trained teacher and worked in school for several years before becoming a school researcher. (Photo: INN University)
Ann Margareth Gustavsen is a trained teacher and worked in school for several years before becoming a school researcher. (Photo: INN University)

Getting into higher education and universities is harder. And it becomes harder for them to get jobs as adults.

Found a strong connection

Ann Margareth Gustavsen is a researcher at the Centre for Studies of Educational Practice (SePU) at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (INN University) in Hamar.

As she started looking into teachers’ assessments of pupils' school performance, she developed a hypothesis that the teacher's perception of a student's social skills was influencing how the teacher was grading the student.

Gustavsen reports that she found a strong connection.

The gender differences in Norwegian schools are greater than in other countries. They have now become so visible that they are considered a social problem by politicians, parents and others. (Illustration photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix)
The gender differences in Norwegian schools are greater than in other countries. They have now become so visible that they are considered a social problem by politicians, parents and others. (Illustration photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix)

A student’s ability – or lack thereof – to follow school norms clearly colours how teachers assess students’ academic performance.

Gustavsen found this to be the case regardless of whether a student was academically strong or not – or whether the student was a boy or a girl.

“But this tendency impacts boys much more than girls, since we find that the teachers consider the boys' social skills considerably worse than those of the girls,” she says.

Gustavsen’s research is based on two studies that included a total of 2266 pupils from 1st through 10th grade. These students were assessed by their contact teacher – both socially and academically – at two different times two years apart.

One social skill that teachers ranked highly in previous research is a student's ability to follow the teacher's instructions. Social skills at school also involve being attentive when the teacher is teaching and controlling tempers. Previous research has shown boys to be worse at all these skills than girls.

Boys don’t follow school social norms

But when a student's ability to follow the school norms influences how a teacher grades the student’s academic performance,  the teacher is clear violation of the guidelines for Norwegian schools.

Teachers are required to comply with these guidelines.

If a student fails to follow the school's norms, then this should be reflected in the student’s conduct grade and not their Norwegian or science grade.

Several studies, both in Norway and abroad, have nevertheless established that teachers' assessment of pupils' academic achievement reflects more than just their academic knowledge.

Gustavsen does not believe that teachers underassess boys consciously.

"Researchers need to collaborate with schools to try and raise awareness among teachers about how they contribute to increasing or maintaining the already large gender differences among their students," she says.

Teachers show gender bias to detriment of boys

Teachers in lower secondary school systematically give boys grades that are too low.

This has previously been demonstrated by comparing the classwork grades given by the teachers with examination marks achieved by the same students. Overall, boys fare better on exams than on classwork marks from their own teacher. This happens to a lesser degree for girls.

The same trend is evident on national tests taken by pupils in lower secondary school.

National test scorers don’t know the student's gender. On these tests boys achieve distinctly better results, and on average they score just as well as girls in subjects like reading and mathematics. In school, boys tend to get worse marks than girls in these subjects.

So, the teachers who know their students actually show more gender bias than the test scorers who don’t know the same students.

Unfortunately for the boys, the national exams are not the decisive factor for getting into the upper secondary schools they want.

Boys rated significantly lower

School researchers in general have become more concerned about social skills.

International studies have shown that the social skills that teachers consider most important among pupils can be summed up as the ability to follow school norms – in other words, to do what the school wants the pupils to do.

“And this is where big differences show up in how teachers evaluate boys and girls. Boys are assessed significantly lower than girls,” Gustavsen says.

Can't sit still

Previous research has shown that whereas girls often work steadily on assignments, boys are more inclined to tackle them in bursts.

Boys are often more vocal when they’re bored during instruction. And boys may also have a greater need to use their bodies and move.

“This might lead to a girl being rewarded by the teacher in the form of higher grades, although her academic level isn’t any higher than her male classmate’s.

Gustavsen has studied over 2000 Norwegian primary and lower secondary school pupils. She has found an equally strong connection between the teachers' assessment of a student's social skills and the same student's academic performance – whether she looks at pupils in primary school (1st to 7th grade) or lower secondary school (8th to 10 grade).

The issue isn’t really about teachers being more partial to girls than to boys. It’s rather that teachers differentiate between pupils who follow the school's social norms and pupils who don’t when they evaluate student achievement.

And this primarily affects the boys.

What qualities are most important?

Gustavsen believes we should be discussing whether the values the school rewards most are really the values that society needs most.

She asks, “Are the pupils who get the best grades in school – at least in part because they follow the school's established social norms – really the type of people that work life and adult life need the most?”

“Or maybe we should instead reward students who show the ability to speak up when they disagree with the teacher or the school?”

The former teacher also points to the strong social and psychological pressure experienced by many girls in connection with school and school work. Does the school cultivate this pressure through emphasizing and rewarding certain social norms?

Norwegian, mathematics and English

Gustavsen’s study looked at teachers' student assessments in the subjects Norwegian, mathematics and English.

The researcher found a clear link between the teachers’ assessment of students’ social skills and their academic performance in Norwegian and mathematics.

But she did not find a similar connection when the teachers graded the students’ English language proficiency. Gustavsen admits that she has no satisfactory explanation for this. She suspects it may have to do with the fact that many boys become good in English when playing computer games but emphasizes that this is only speculation.

Limitations of the study

Gustavsen points to certain limitations of this study. She is not able to draw hard and fast conclusions about the causes of the phenomena she has investigated.

What she has done is point out a clear relationship between teachers' assessments of students’ social abilities and their academic performance

About three out of four teachers are women in Norwegian primary schools. Some researchers have looked at whether schools with more female than male teachers engender feminine values that boys have a harder time living up to.

“The feminization hypothesis is widely used as an explanation for teachers rating boys lower than girls in their assessments,” says Gustavsen.

In her recent research in Norway, Gustavsen did not find any such gender relationships, except for one: girls have a greater chance of getting better grades from male than female teachers in Norwegian and English.

She did not observe that teacher gender was an explanation for boys receiving lower marks for their academic achievement than they should have.

When boys and girls perform equally

Other researchers doing school research at Hamar have previously looked at what characterizes schools where gender differences in school academic performance are relatively small.

School researcher Thomas Nordahl at the INN University concluded that these schools have:

• High expectations for all students.
• Positive relationships between student and teacher.
• Teachers are regarded as clear leaders in the classroom.
• A clear commitment to reading literature that also interests boys.

Nordahl finds it striking how much boys benefit from measures that are also recognized as effective general learning measures. In other words, girls can take full advantage of them, too.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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