Boys take a tumble

From grades 1 through 12, boys report progressively steeper drops in appraisals of their own academic abilities and in the value they place on basic school subjects than girls do, according to a long-term study.

This trend may contribute to a growing tendency for high school boys to drop out of school, say Janis E. Jacobs of Pennsylvania State University in State College and her coworkers. In contrast, more girls than ever are staying in school. The new survey appears in the March/April Child Development.

From 1989 to 1999, Jacobs’ group tracked 761 public-school students who were predominantly white and from middle-class homes. They attended either first, second, or fourth grade at the start of the study. At six times during the investigation, each student rated his or her own ability and interest in mathematics, English or related subjects, and sports.

Self-rated ability in these three domains, and the value placed on them, declined as both boys and girls got older. This result was expected, since children encounter more demanding standards and greater competition as they progress through school.

In math, boys entered school feeling more competent than girls did, only to report a sharper decline. By grade 12, girls felt more competent in math than boys did.

For language-related subjects, boys and girls rated themselves as equally competent at first, but over time, boys reported steeper declines in competence, leaving high school girls with considerably brighter views about their language skills. As for sports, the boys consistently reported greater feelings of competence than girls did.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.