Good at Math: Beware of Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School

Since 2018, all elementary school students are assessed three times: in September when they enter CP, at the end of January in the middle of the school year, and in September when they enter CE1. These are standardized and relatively short assessments in French and mathematics, identical in all schools in France. We therefore have precise information on the skills of 700,000 children.

A recent memo from the National Education Scientific Council, entitled “What do we learn from the CP-CE1 assessments?” draws some conclusions from this mass of data. Some of them will not surprise school teachers. For example, in the same class, children born in January do significantly better than those born in December of the same year. This is to be expected: when you are six years old, one year more or less is a huge difference. It goes without saying that teachers know this and take it into account. Another observation, unfortunately obvious, is that schools in disadvantaged areas have lower results. To reassure oneself about the role of the school, we fortunately verify that at the beginning of the school year in CE1 this deficit has been partially reduced, even if it remains.

A startling finding is the extreme speed with which a difference is developing between boys and girls in mathematics. The numbers are truly alarming. Upon entering first grade, boys and girls have exactly the same math skills. Just five months later, boys have significantly better results, and a year later, when they enter second grade, the gap has widened. This does not depend on the type of school, social position, or age of the students.

Seeing beyond calculation

How can we understand this distressing phenomenon? In many countries, it is girls who perform better. International surveys show that many countries have managed to close the gender gap in mathematics. We will have to uncover the gender stereotypes that lurk in schools and in our society. Many of us unconsciously think that mathematics is more masculine than feminine. We do not behave the same way towards a little girl and a little boy when it comes to mathematics. We also need to be careful that these mathematical assessments are primarily about numbers. However, mathematics, especially in school, goes far beyond calculation: there are also the rudiments of logic or the manipulation of shapes, which are not part of the assessments and for which one should not draw hasty conclusions.

En français, à l’entrée en CP, il existe un avantage pour les filles qui se réduit en janvier, pour réapparaître de manière plus faible en CE1

Surprisingly, this phenomenon does not occur in French, or more precisely in language skills. At the beginning of the first grade, there is an advantage for girls that diminishes in January, only to reappear in a weaker way in the second grade. These are other gender stereotypes that need to be deconstructed.

The main purpose of these assessments in elementary school is not only to determine the state of the art of children’s skills at the national level: a simple survey would suffice. It is above all to offer teachers a tool that allows them to measure as objectively as possible the progress of each of their students, and to detect in time any difficulties that may arise in their learning. For the moment, only a small half of school teachers say that these assessments have allowed them to detect problems in their students. It is not surprising that they are wary of these national assessments, which are a little too prescriptive: who knows the students better than the teachers?