Why more girls get the grades while boys struggle in our schools

Far more boys than girls in Snohomish County either barely scrape by or flunk their high school classes, according to a Herald analysis of grade point averages.

Through last June, just under half of the county’s girls — 48.8 percent — had a grade point in the solid A to B range of 3.0 or above. A third of boys — 33.4 percent — could make the same claim.

At the same time, nearly a third of boys had a grade point average of 1.99 or less, the C-minus to F range, compared to fewer than 1 in 5 girls.

The data also shows that high school girls tend to earn higher grades in all core subjects, including math, at all grade levels despite the fact that boys scored slightly higher in that discipline on last year’s state WASL exams.

Julio Palomino, 19, knows what it is like to struggle in high school.

He fell behind his freshman year and later dropped out of Snohomish High School. He now attends Everett Community College, where he is doing well and hopes to earn his high school diploma and college associate’s degree by next winter.

Palomino said it helps him to take two to three classes a quarter at EvCC instead of six classes a semester in traditional high school.

He said he was like other boys he hung out with: He didn’t manage his time well, lacked motivation and wouldn’t complete assignments.

“In high school, I just couldn’t do good. I just couldn’t focus,” he said. “In the classes I was doing bad in, I didn’t do my homework. I just gave up.”

The gender achievement gap in local schools mirrors national trends and helps explain why college and university enrollment has become increasingly dominated by women over the past several decades. Nationally, women represent about 57 percent of students at U.S. colleges, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education. In 1950, women made up 29 percent.

In Washington state in 2008, women accounted for 54 percent of public university students, 57 percent at private colleges and 58 percent at community college. They also are more likely to graduate from college.

“The situation is in some ways getting worse in that the gender gap is increasingly deep,” said Michael Gurian, a Spokane-based education researcher and author.

Gurian makes the case that girls and boys are programmed differently. Girls tend to be more verbal learners; boys, more spatial, mechanical and physical. While most children can learn either way, many others struggle in the traditional classroom.

“These kids are not going away. They are our sons,” Gurian said. “This particular type of learner is vast. There are millions of them.”

Widespread problem

Some local education leaders say it is time to start paying greater attention to the grade gulf between boys and girls.

“With these kinds of disparities, it is worth making it a focus of attention,” said Ed Petersen, the Everett School Board president. “Are there some structural things in our educational system that can be done?”

Monroe High School Principal John Lombardi is aware of the trend.

“I think it’s data we can’t ignore, but it’s just one piece,” he said.

At Monroe High School, more freshman, sophomore and junior boys had grade points under 2.0 than over 3.0. Monroe was one of many schools in that category. By contrast, nearly twice as many girls had an A or B grade point average than a C-minus or below.

“In 1991, when I started teaching, the big issue was how do we improve girls’ scores,” Lombardi said. “Now we are discussing how do we improve boys’ scores. The real question is how do we get them all to improve.”

In the Marysville School District, 16.2 percent of high school boys had grade point averages below a 1.0 compared to 11.8 percent with a 3.5 or higher.

At Granite Falls High School, boys made up 22 of the 24 students with F averages last spring. Principal Eric Cahan said the school is trying to find ways to better engage boys.

“We are making efforts in that area, but we are struggling like everyone else,” he said.

Across Snohomish County, there were 1,336 boys with a grade point in the D-minus and F range compared to 729 girls.

Researchers say there are many reasons for the grade point disparity. Girls tend to be more mature and are better organized entering high school and they are more likely to turn in homework.

“They may not be smarter, but they know how to figure out the system,” said Judith Murdock, principal at the Bio-Med Academy at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.

Murdock also points to brain research that shows a slower development in a part of the brain in boys that plays a key role in organizational skills.

“Maybe girls think more long-term,” said Brett Fisher, a Lake Stevens High School senior. “Even if a class doesn’t seem relevant, they do well.”

The effort has its rewards.

Girls, for instance, represent six of the nine valedictorians at Marysville-Pilchuck High School this spring. When the Everett Rotary Club gave out nearly $200,000 in scholarships earlier this month, girls received 26 of the 34 awards.

They also are more likely to graduate, according to state statistics. In 2009, 79.2 percent of girls earned diplomas in four years from Snohomish County high schools compared to 72.4 percent of boys.

Snohomish School District Superintendent Bill Mester said reading scores on standardized tests would be his starting point in investigating reasons for the grade gender gap. Much of success in high school depends on reading ability, he said.

“The reading and writing, it’s just so integral,” he said.

Statewide, girls have outperformed boys — sometimes by wide margins — in each of the 11 years the state has required 10th-grade reading exams. The gap in passing rates has ranged from 6 percent to 15 percent.

Ian England, a senior who splits time between Lake Stevens High School and a regional vocational school, believes boys simply don’t worry as much about grades.

“Guys seem to be more like they don’t care that much. They do care, but it’s not a big deal,” he said. “Girls, they want to get good grades to get good grades. For guys, the grade doesn’t really matter as much as getting the information.”

Behavior, not brainpower

The gender gap in high school is not a case of girls being smarter than boys, said Julie Coates, an education researcher or the Wisconsin-based Learning Resources Network.

It’s more about behavior, she said. Boys are much more likely to turn homework in late, if at all.

“Basically what schools are doing is grading behavior that is not based on what students know,” she said. “As long as grades include academic assignments of grades for nonacademic behavior, boys will be on the short end.”

Lynnwood High School Principal Dave Golden said the homework issue poses a dilemma in evaluating students.

“Every school goes through struggles about that dynamic,” he said. “How much are you going to value the daily work habits versus showing what you know on a test?”

Golden also believes that more typical boy behaviors, such as risk taking and out-of-the-box solutions, tend to be penalized in school, but could later be rewarded in the workplace.

Some national experts argue that boys don’t worry about grades as much because they believe after high school they can land jobs in male-dominated occupations that pay well.

Research also suggests that boys want their schoolwork to be relevant to their future goals, Coates said. They often won’t try if they don’t see a connection to their goals.

A visit to a robotics and electronics classroom at the Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center in south Everett offers anecdotal evidence to that point. It’s a class that includes hands-on projects that tap into spatial learning.

Forty-one of the 42 students in Karen Coulombe’s two classes are boys. Most arrived with C averages from their home schools, but Coulombe barely studies their transcripts beyond how they have done in math, an important skill for electronics.

Fisher, a Lake Stevens High School senior who spends half his day at Sno-Isle, earns A’s in electronics “because it’s what I want to do with my life.”

He can’t say the same for many classes he has taken at his home school. Over the years, hanging out with friends trumped homework. “It’s like loyalty,” he said.

Fellow electronics student Josh Armstrong, another Lake Stevens High School senior, said boys are more likely to find traditional school dull and some homework pointless.

“Guys are just there,” he said. “We find it a tedious task we have to go to every day. It’s like a chore.”

Armstrong went from “not really caring or trying very hard” his freshmen and sophomore years to earning a $1,100 scholarship for his electronics studies next fall at Edmonds Community College based on his performance in Coulombe’s class.

Kyle Jorissen, a Henry M. Jackson High School senior, said girls in general just seem to work harder than boys in the traditional classroom.

“I admit I’m a lot lazier than any girl I’ve known,” he said. “I prefer the hands-on approach to learning as opposed to studying from a textbook. I just don’t feel like I’m getting anything from all that paperwork. At my home school, I would do just enough to get by.”

By contrast, he is a solid student at Sno-Isle and is motivated enough in electronics to take a soldering and cabling night class at Edmonds Community College. Jorissen recently was chosen as the electronics program’s student of the year.

“That means if I can only hire one person for a business, he would be the person I would hire,” Coulombe said “He is the kind of kid who doesn’t make an excuse. He will do whatever you ask him to and he will do it right.”

Gurian, the Spokane-based researcher, said schools can do more to help boys do better and the effort must start early. For many boys, academic motivation is “gradually drifting” by middle school because the system for teaching does not fit the way they learn.

The challenge extends far beyond the classroom, Gurian said.

Parents must set boundaries for boys.

“If they have a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old, they have to sit with him and make sure he does his homework,” he said. “They have to enforce the household laws.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

How we got the numbers

The Herald requested a breakdown of grades based on gender from each school district in Snohomish County through the 2008-09 school year. Grade data by gender in English, math, science and history also was provided.

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