Do teenage boys have poorer literacy achievement than teenage girls? The answer may surprise you (Best evidence in brief)

Sorry for the clickbait title, but this study actually surprised me when I read the summary in the bi-weekly Best Evidence in Brief – newsletter. This study was written up by Feifei Wang.

Literacy is foundational to academic success and social participation of students. However, many studies have indicated that teenage boys have poorer literacy grades than teenage girls. A recent study by Borgonovi compared two low-stakes international large-scale assessments to identify if similar gender gaps existed between them and what factors were related to these gaps.

The study compared a widely-used low-stakes school-based assessment, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), with another low-stakes household-based assessment, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). In the two assessments, individual-level data from 15- to 17-year-old teens in the countries that administered both assessments were examined to investigate and compare the literacy gender gap.


The study found that the two assessments showed different estimates of literacy gender gaps. In PISA, boys significantly underperformed compared with girls, but in PIAAC, no gender gap was identified. The differences in the gaps were associated with differences in motivation between boys and girls, shaped by participant selection methods, scoring methods, test length, delivery mode (i.e., computer-based or paper-based assessments), text type, and cognitive processes involved in completing assessment tasks. Therefore, before embarking on major policy reforms to ensure that boys develop literacy skills, it would be important to evaluate whether assessments are appropriate and comprehensive enough to capture the dimensions of literacy in which boys may be more proficient, and most importantly, whether assessments provide incentives for boys to display what they know and can do.

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