College Women's Performance in a Math-Science Curriculum (Abstract)

Author(s):  Elizabeth S. Johnson

This research was completed before the implementation of changes in the Scholastic Aptitude Text (SAT) format in the 1994-1995 school year.

Johnson investigated women's academic performance compared to that of men at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a university with a math-science-based curriculum. Part of the impetus for this study arose as college applicants and others questioned the policy of admitting women with on average, somewhat lower SAT scores than men. Johnson's question became, "Do women perform as well as men when they major in engineering or science programs?"

This report's definition of academic success involved "on-time" performance, or the completion of undergraduate requirements within eight semesters of entry. Cumulative grade-point average was also considered as an indicator of successful performance.

Johnson found that it is "worth taking risks on women applicants to schools with strongly math-science based curriculums even when their standardized test scores are on average lower than those of men applicants." The SAT score underpredicted women's academic performance: they performed as well as men in their college careers.

Results

A table of the data is available. Two classes of freshmen were followed from entry through graduation. In both classes, women had higher four-year completion rates (on-time performance) than men. The mean grade point average (GPA) was 4.3 for both men and women who completed their bachelor's degree requirements.

Some have argued that the equal level of GPA's may be partly due to the fact that women major in areas other than engineering or science (the former being considered easier majors than the latter) more often than men do. However, at the university studied, all students are required to pass a minimum of eight science courses and more than three-fourths of each class of women continued to major in science. When GPA's were compared by major, out of each class only one major had a statistically significant difference between men's and women's GPAs.

The authors conclude that for the majority of on-time undergraduates there is almost no difference in the GPAs of men and women, even within the same majors.

Conclusion

Women whose standardized test scores are lower than men's may be predicted to do less well in college. However, women's grades are usually as good as, if not better than, men's. Johnson adds that SAT scores are only one of many factors involved in the decision to offer or deny admission to a college applicant. Other factors include:

  • high school transcript.
  • achievement test scores.
  • description of interests and activities.
  • essay.
  • interview.
  • references.

Since SAT scores are only one factor, a below-average standardized-test performance may be compensated for by stellar grades or impressive extracurricular achievements in the decision to admit or deny an applicant.

These results may not yet be fully applicable to women at all universities, since not all universities are math-science-based like MIT. Yet these results demonstrate that women in a demanding environment achieve success comparable to that of men. A university in which this situation does not exist should evaluate its treatment of women (both overt and subtle) and "not resort to finding the excuses within score data that were obtained when the women were in high school, an environment much less likely to foster confidence in women with regard to math and science ability."

--abstract by Online Ethics Center staff.

Cite this page: "College Women's Performance in a Math-Science Curriculum (Abstract)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/2/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Saturday, December 20, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Topics/Diversity/DiverseEssays/Abstracts/abstractsindex/perfmathsci.aspx>