Do boys really outperform girls at maths?

The publication of leaving certificate results is met with coverage that is remarkable both for its extensiveness and for its “sameness” year-to-year. Every year, there’ll be a story about the student who got 10 A1s. Every year, there’ll be interviews with students who are “happy enough” with the points they received. Every year there’ll be commentary around how the points requirements for various courses have changed. And every year, the results will be broken down by gender and we’ll be told that girls outperformed boys in almost all subjects except for maths and a handful of others.

And yet, for all this coverage, there is a lack of any detailed numerical analysis of the points system. To address this, I have drilled down into the 2017 statistics provided by the State Examinations Commission[1] to see what evidence exists to support or contradict the received wisdom around the leaving certificate.

We’ll start by interrogating the claim that boys do better than girls at maths.

From a cursory glance at the statistics, there is some evidence to support this; boys tend to get more of the top grades. In 2017, 12% of boys received a H1, H2 or H3[2] compared to 8.5% of girls. But it is hardly reasonable to make broad claims about entire gender cohorts based on such small percentages.

For an “overall view” we might look at average points received for maths. On average, boys get 43 points and girls get 41 points. But to put this 2 point difference in some context, it should be noted that “O1”, “O2” and “O3” grades get 56, 46 and 37 points respectively – differences of 10 and 9 points.

We must also consider the effects of the points system itself. For example, recipients of H1, H2 and H3 grades get 100, 88 and 77 points respectively plus 25 additional “bonus points” for maths. Yet these point-levels are entirely arbitrary. Why don’t we give 101 points for a H1? Why not 99 points?

Indeed, if we remove bonus points and award 96, 86 and 76 points for H1, H2 and H3 grades respectively then, on average, girls get more points for maths than boys!

So yes – we can say that, on average, boys get more points than girls in maths but only by an amount that (i) is much smaller than that used by examiners to distinguish between grades and (ii) can be completely reversed by some very modest changes to the points system.

Yet even with all those qualifications, we still cannot say that boys are better than girls at maths. On the contrary, if we look at median performance we find that the opposite is true. The median number of maths points received by girls is 37; the median for boys is 28. This means that just over half[3] of girls get 37 points or more in maths whereas just over half[4] of boys get 28 points or fewer.

In other words – most girls do better than most boys in maths.

[2] Roughly equivalent to a Higher-level “A” or “B” in old money

[3] 50.94% to be precise

[4] 50.05% to be precise