Geographic Variation in the Gender Differences in Test Scores

Geographic Variation in the Gender Differences in Test Scores


  • Justin Sydnor
  • Devin P . Wharton


Journal of Economics Perspectives, April (2nd Quarter/Spring) 2010


The causes and consequences of gender disparities in standardized test scores – especially in the high tails of achievement – have been a topic of heated debate. The existing evidence on standardized test scores largely confirms the prevailing stereotypes that more men than women excel in math and science while more women than men excel in tests of language and reading. We provide a new perspective on this gender gap in test scores by analyzing the variation in these disparities across geographic areas. We illustrate that male-female ratios of students scoring in the high ranges of standardized tests vary significantly across the U.S. This variation is systematic in several important ways. In particular, states where males are highly overrepresented in the top math and science scores also tend to see women highly overrepresented in top reading scores. This pattern suggests that states vary in their adherence to stereotypical gender performance, rather than favoring one sex over the other across all subjects. Since biological differences between the sexes are unlikely to vary at the state level, while cultural and education environments do, the variation we find speaks to the nature-vs.-nurture debates surrounding test scores and suggests environmental differences in the U.S. greatly impact gender disparities in test scores.