Men still outperform women in undergraduate introductory biology tests and humanities scholars are scrambling to blame the tests. And the wealth of families. Anything except the fact that on different tests in different classes at different times, test performance will vary and is not a problem that can be fixed by creating a test where women, or poor women, will be guaranteed to do better.
How is performance different? When it comes to memorization tests, facts, both genders are equal, but when tests include cognitively challenging questions that require elevated critical thinking, females and lower socioeconomic students score lower than their male or high-status peers. Publishing that result without hedging is a sure way to get through out of a university.
So the others attempted to control for it by using a new knob - income status. It worked, they could now say women performed more poorly on cognitively challenging exams because of their socioeconomic status.
The paper by Christian Wright, instructional professional with Arizona State University School of Life Sciences, is in CBE--Life Sciences Education.
Over a three-year period, they looked at 87 introductory biology exams taught by 26 instructors at their school, including over 4800 students in the analysis. Despite it being in one school in one narrow period of time they contend they were able to collect exams in which test characteristics spanned a breadth of possibilities. The results should be meaningful as is, because biology tests need to be more cognitively challenging as conceptual understanding of biology is vital. Instead, they want to make students who aren't grasping the concepts important for this vital work feel better about not testing well.
They recommend active learning practices to help close the gap, including clickers, classroom discussion and other tools known to enhance student learning and help students perform better on critical thinking questions.
If student academic ability is the same, why does a gap emerge when the students take more challenging exams that test critical thinking?
The easy answer when there is no good answer is stereotype threat - the belief that white basketball players perform less well in basketball because they are representing white basketball players who aren't as good at basketball, and that pressure makes them play basketball less well. Or that women are too nervous about biology tests making women look bad to test well.
Regardless of what humanities scholars believe, women seem to do fine in biology when they are not at ASU. PhDs outnumber men and have for years, so science will be fine.