Why do women do so much better at university than their high school test scores predict?

Posted on May 13, 2016

In a new paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Heidi Keiser’s team examine aforementioned rival explanations for why high school aptitude tests under-predict girls’ later success at university.

The new research first compared the university grades of 2000 students from a single institution with their high school aptitude scores. Women scored better on their course than you would expect based on an earlier aptitude test, but once the researchers took account of the female students’ higher average trait conscientiousness, 20 per cent of their grade surplus disappeared – a finding that replicates earlier research.

The researchers then decomposed the students’ degree course into elements, reasoning that if conscientiousness has a role in the gender gap, this should be greatest when grades depended highly on discretionary effort, like participating in discussion or research, and least when grades depended on raw smarts. The data showed that high school aptitude scores underestimated female performance on these effort-sensitive course elements, but were no worse at estimating their success on quizzes and tests than they were for men. Overall, the perspective that women do better than expected at university because of their greater effort and conscientiousness.

In a second study, the researchers tested the counter argument that women perform surprisingly well because they pick easier courses. The data, from huge historical datasets comprising nearly 400,000 students, showed that the courses men tended to take were significantly meaner (that is, male and female students on these courses tended to achieve worse grades than expected given their academic history) and were also more likely to be populated with high-achieving students competing for grades. This may explain why women do better in university, but to a smaller extent. Only nine percent more men took tougher courses than women, much less than the effect of conscientiousness.

But what about the argument that standardized tests are simply faulty? The argument that the aptitude tests, measuring cognitive ability, simply weren’t doing it right could hold a case. The hidden variables found in this study – conscientiousness and course selection – together accounted for only less than thirty per cent of the gender gap.

However, it’s also plausible that aptitude tests are doing a reasonable job, it’s just that there are many non-cognitive factors critical to university success. If so, it’s not that school tests and exams need to be improved, but that they give us just one part of what higher education requires.

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Source material from BPS Research Digest

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