How The SAT Cripples Girls’ Scores

While looking through research studies for information about how gender might affect performance on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and SSAT, I came upon an article published by the American Enterprise Institute by Mark J. Perry titled “2016 SAT Test Results Confirm Pattern that’s Persisted for 50 Years—High School Boys are Better at Math than Girls.”

What was that you just said?

However, the author’s claim is true. If we assume that standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and SSAT are objective measures of intelligence and if we look only at these test scores to evaluate possible differences between girls’ intellectual abilities and boys’, we see that year after year, boys do score higher than girls on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and SSAT. This discrepancy is especially—but not exclusively–apparent in math. For example, in 2016, 61.5% of the 117,067 students with math SAT scores in the highest 700-800-point range were boys, while girls represented only 38.5% of students with the highest SAT math scores. In other words, there were only 100 girls who scored between 700-800 on the math portion of the SAT for every 160 boys who scored in the same superior range. The simple conclusion, as represented in the AEI headline above, is that boys are smarter in math than girls.

Girls do better in class than boys, but worse on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and SSAT and the consequences for girls are significant.

Why is this? Why do girls perform less successfully on standardized tests than boys when year after year, studies reveal that girls do better in high school than boys? For example, of students who graduated high school in 2016, girls show superior high school records when compared to boys: Of the students who graduated with an A+ grade point average that year, 60% were girls; girls represented 56% of students in the top 10% of their graduating classes; girls formed 55% of the students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) and honors math classes and 56% of those enrolled in AP and honors classes in science; and more girls than boys graduated with a 3.45 GPA or better than boys (the average GPA for boys that year was 3.30). As well, more girls than boys studied four years of high school math and natural sciences.


So what’s going on? Are girls just going dumb in test situations?


If we look at the last forty years of research, we see that the explanation for the disparity between girls’ school performance and test performance is multi-factored and complicated. But among the many reasons girls do not perform as well as boys on the SAT, ACT, and SSAT, two stand out: gender bias on the test and gendered test-taking behaviors. Let’s break these two down one-by-one.

Gender Bias on Standardized Tests

Some years ago, in response to concerns about sexist content on the SAT, The College Board, the organization that creates the SAT, promised to eliminate misogynistic and sexist content from the test. But anyone who reads the test, knows that their attempt failed, big time.


For example, on a recent SAT, a math question challenged students to examine a chart that showed more boys enrolled in math classes than girls. On the same test, in the reading and writing part of the test, students were asked to analyze a nineteenth-century text arguing that a woman’s place is in the home. Many questions about another reading passage could only be answered correctly if the test taker knew the definition of the word “spinster” and was aware of the word’s derogatory connotations.


When I ask my female SAT, ACT, and SSAT students about stereotypical representations on the tests, the word they most often use to describe their responses is “annoying,” a word they confess is “a little euphemistic.” Other girls have reported to me that they feel “uncomfortable” when working on such passages. Recently, a girl studying with me for the SAT said, “It pisses me off, but I try not to deal with it because if I think about how angry I am, it’s going to mess me up for the rest of the test.”  When I first read the test material cited above, I felt furious and wondered why the College Board went out of its way to frame a percentage question as a girls-in-math problem.


But the disturbance these girls feel has far more serious consequences than those that typically accompany mild transient irritation. Psychologists have shown that confrontation with negative stereotypes such as those seen in the examples above raise inhibiting doubts and anxieties in the test-taker’s mind, and the consequent disruption results in the phenomenon psychologists call “stereotype threat.”  Once invoked, the emotional disturbance that results from confrontation with the negative stereotype can interfere with a girl’s performance on all of the remaining test questions, not just the questions that involve negative stereotypes. In other words, if you confront girls with negative stereotypical assumptions about girls, you can mess up their entire test performance. And if you continue to mess up girls’ performance this way, you perpetuate the academic achievement gap between girls and boys.


In addition, confrontation with sexist stereotypes induce what psychologists term “cognitive fatigue” in girls. When girls need to fend off the anger and anxiety aroused by stereotypical representations of girls, cognitive energy is drained, and that’s tiring. And if a girl pauses to think about the stereotype or the feelings aroused, she’s going to lose time. And that loss of time and cognitive drain is going to result in a weakened test score. For example, when I first read the girls-in-math problem, I felt angry, then I thought about my anger, and when I returned my attention to the test problem, I felt distracted. All of that cogitation took up precious seconds and contributed to my need to rush through the rest of the test.


Stereotype threat accounts for a significant portion of the gender differences we see in standardized test scores. In fact, one recent study indicated that stereotype threat was responsible for girls scoring 15% lower than boys. Another study showed that stereotype threat was responsible for a 30-point gap between boys and girls taking the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). In addition, there is some evidence of “stereotype boost.” Research indicates that when tests remind boys of stereotypes that suggest they are superior to girls in a certain area, their test performance improves, thus widening the achievement gap between girls and boys even more.


Gendered Test-Taking Behaviors

According to researchers, the second reason for the persistent gap between girls’ and boys’ standardized test scores involves the different ways girls and boys take tests. While boys see the SAT, ACT, and SSAT as contests to be gamed, girls “tend to be more conscientious” explains Marcia Linn a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who has been studying gender differences in student test scores for over 20 years. In other words, while girls often double check their answers, boys more often “stab” at answers and move on. While girls’ diligence works well in the classroom (and results in higher grades), pausing to thoroughly analyze a problem in a timed test situation can be counterproductive. Second, because of the way we raise girls, girls are more likely than boys to feel that it is dishonest to mark an answer as correct when they aren’t certain it is. In fact, in one of the College Board’s own studies, girls proved twelve times more likely than boys to leave questions unanswered because they weren’t sure of the right answers. Why do girls do this? For many reasons, girls are more likely than boys to perceive the test as a measure of intelligence; in contrast, boys perceive the test as a tournament to be manipulated and conquered. In other words, you don’t want to waste time making sure you’ve done your due diligence when answering a question when success on the test is dependent on a kind of audacious confidence, brash speed, and a good deal of cheek.


Taken together, the sexist content embedded in standardized tests such as the SAT, SSAT, and ACT and the differences in test-taking behaviors evidenced in girls and boys has serious consequences for girls, and for all of us. For example, at some elite universities, admissions officers routinely determine that more boys than girls are eligible for admission solely based on boy applicants’ standardized test scores. As disturbing, given the overvaluation of standardized tests in our society, SAT, ACT, and SSAT scores can negatively influence a girl’s perception of her own intellectual ability, especially as we continue to perceive standardized tests as objective measures.


What Parents Can Do:

Fortunately, there are some things parents can do to decrease the potential impact of stereotype threat and better prepare girls for the SAT, SSAT, ACT, and other standardized tests. First, as evidenced in research settings, the effect of stereotype threat is diminished when girls know in advance that they might encounter sexist content on the tests and be disturbed by that content. For example, in research situations, girl test takers performed better on the SAT when they were told before taking the test that some anxiety and anger might be aroused upon confrontation with the sexist stereotypes embedded in the test content. Before your daughter takes the SAT, ACT, or SSAT, assure her that the stereotypes have nothing to do with her or her intellectual ability. Encourage her to “Girl up!” and remind her that there are no limits to her academic achievement.

Simple reassurances such as these go a long way in boosting a girl’s performance.


One parenthetical note: When I first started researching this post, I dictated these words to Siri: “girls’ test-taking behaviors.” Siri’s translation: “Girl’s chest-taking behaviors.”  We have a long way to go.


Want to gender check your SAT, ACT, or SSAT test prep work? Call me! I’m always ready to help you achieve academic excellence!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.