High-stakes tests a likely factor in STEM performance gap: study

Study: High-stakes tests a likely factor in STEM performance gap
Credit: University of Minnesota

Male students tend to do better on high-stakes tests in biology courses, but it's not because they are better students. Gaps in performance change based on the stakes of the test. A new study published in PLOS ONE confirms this, finding that performance gaps between male and female students increased or decreased based on whether instructors emphasized or de-emphasized the value of exams.

Sehoya Cotner, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in Cotner's lab, base their findings on a year-long study of students in nine introductory biology courses. They found that female students did not underperform in courses where exams count for less than half of the total course grade. In a separate study, instructors changed the curriculum in three different courses to place higher or lesser value on high-stakes exams (e.g., midterms and finals) and observed gender-biased patterns in performance.

"When the value of exams is changed, performance gaps increase or decrease accordingly," says Cotner.

These findings build on recent research by Cotner and Ballen that showed that on average, women's performance is adversely affected by test anxiety. By moving to a "mixed model" of student assessment—including lower-stakes exams, as well as quizzes and other assignments—instructors can decrease well established performance gaps between male and female students in .

"This is not simply due to a 'watering down' of poor performance through the use of easy points," says Cotner. "Rather, on the exams themselves, women perform on par with men when the stakes are not so high."

The researchers point to these varied assessments as a potential reason why the active-learning approach, which shifts the focus away from lectures and lecture halls to more collaborative spaces and group-based work, appears to decrease the performance gap between students.

"As people transition to active learning, they tend to incorporate a diversity of low-stakes, formative assessments into their courses," Cotner says. "We think that it is this use of mixed assessment that advantages students who are otherwise underserved in the large introductory science courses."

Cotner and Ballen also see their findings as a potential to reframe gaps in performance.

"Many barriers students face can be mitigated by instructional choices," says Cotner. "We conclude by challenging the student deficit model, and suggest a course deficit model as explanatory of these gaps, whereby the microclimate of the classroom can either raise or lower barriers to success for underrepresented groups in STEM."


Explore further

High-stakes exams can put female students at a disadvantage

More information: Sehoya Cotner et al, Can mixed assessment methods make biology classes more equitable?, PLOS ONE (2017). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0189610
Journal information: PLoS ONE

Citation: High-stakes tests a likely factor in STEM performance gap: study (2017, December 28) retrieved 17 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2017-12-high-stakes-factor-stem-gap.html
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Dec 28, 2017
According to the study, they only included students who completed BIOL 202 and BIOL 203 consecutively. Statistically women drop out increasingly as these courses go on so only using these students will skew the results in favor of the surviving women. They would need to use the same course levels with varying emphasis on tests to determine if this is really a factor or not.

Dec 29, 2017
This is like saying that humans who can't hit an animal with one rock can hit as many animals as one who can if they are given extra opportunities to hit an animal with a rock.

The problem is, after you throw a rock at an animal and miss, it runs away along with the others in the herd. You then have to run it down or find another one while the human who hit his animal with one rock is already on the way back to camp to feed the offspring who carry his genes.

What I would like is an explanation from these female researchers why women suffer from more performance anxiety than their male counterparts in such classes and whether changing course curricula to reduce this anxiety to level the field has any real world ramifications-- such as in the case of an biohazard emergency or a lab fire or a disease outbreak and you only have one chance to hit the animal with a rock not many chances.

Dec 29, 2017
There remain sad excuses for humans who only really feel comfortable if they've found a reason to feel innately superior to some other class. Then, they need to construct a conspiracy of the inferior to explain why alpha males such as themselves are still trying to find a new community to replace /r/incels.

Dec 30, 2017
In universities, we already make certain science classes easier and less "high stakes;" we call it lab. In undergraduate science, lab is where everyone has a great chance of getting an A just by showing up to the minimum number of labs and letting the serious students do all the setups and calculations. Labs tend to feature all the buzzwords. Cooperative, experiential, low stakes, blah, blah, blah. Undergraduate labs are often the participation medal of the sciences. If lectures become so low stakes that it becomes like lab, will an A have any remaining meaning? There are few significant jobs or lab positions that do not require a level of pressure to perform to a level of quality or productivity, often both. I seem to recall that almost every science class I took began each semester with the standard, "we have to go through the material quickly because it is too much for too little time..." Learn how to deal with relatively high stakes while still in a learning environment.

Dec 30, 2017
It is just amazing that any time that a prefered minority is less competitive in an area it is because of a built in bias and not the fact the certain groups are more suited to certain tasks because of their personal preferences. A prime example of this is the male female ratio in nursing.

Dec 30, 2017
Given a choice in High School how many females would choose to take a physics class over say an art class vs males.

Dec 30, 2017
In fact it is safe to say that young females pretty much create the gap in High School. The females cruelly reject the boys forcing them to become nerds insuring that the gap endures.

OK that was a little tongue-in-cheek but I thought that it was as good an explanation as any.

Jan 02, 2018
Yes, males and females are different. Getting a little tired of the concerted effort to devalue males everywhere all the time. When you finish emasculating society, and there is a high stakes emergency, you will get what you deserve.

Jan 02, 2018
Reading the article and the linked abstract I wonder whether they are measuring the right things. In the end what a course wants to achieve is not high test scores but high proficiency in the course subject. The two are related but not the same.
it seems counterproductive (from a proficiency standpoint) to start giving out points for non-subject related activities.

That sorta reminded me of the totally ridiculous system I encountered when I was visiting the US during my school years: Where you'd get 80% of your grade in physical education for just attending every day (and the other 20% spread over 4 tests on rules of various games)...what do either have to do with physical fitness which the course is supposed to promote?

Jan 02, 2018
Anti at the rate the US is going there will be little difference between a degree and a participation trophy.

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