Here is an interesting article from MIT on patterns in high math achievement based on a study of AMC data. This research follows on the heels of the paper written by Dr. Andreescu and his colleagues last year. The study seems to conclude that girls (and presumably also boys) thrive when they are able to study math in a community that reinforces their interests and encourages their talents.

Here are some key excerpts from the article:

Ellison and Swanson arrived at their findings by using a novel source of data: the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC), a 60-year-old annual contest involving 125,000 exceptional high-school students. A select group of students who do especially well on the AMC compete in a series of annual competitions, the U.S. Mathematical Olympiad and the International Mathematical Olympiad. This focus on standout students differs from most studies about math and gender in schools…

The numbers Ellison and Swanson scrutinized indicate that the gender disparity among star math students widens as performance levels increase. In 2007, about 800,000 girls took the math SAT, compared to about 700,000 boys. Yet at the 99th percentile of the math SATs, boys outnumber girls two to one. In their research, Ellison and Swanson divide that upper tier into even smaller segments, using AMC results. Among students in the 94th percentile of the AMC tests, they found, the top boys outnumbered the top girls four to one; at the 99th AMC percentile, six to one; and at the 99.9th AMC percentile, 12 to one…

Ellison thinks this huge gender disparity is linked to another fact: Among those students scoring so highly on the AMC and participating in the math Olympiads, the range of high schools represented is much greater for boys than for girls. “The top boys in the Olympiads come from all over the United States,” says Ellison. “Some of them are from big powerhouse schools, and some are from schools where they’re the only student who’s really good at math. But it’s these 20 high schools where the majority of the girls are coming from.” Those institutions range from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite New England prep school, to a fistful of public high schools in Northern California, from Palo Alto to San Jose. By contrast, Ellison and Swanson note, half of the boys in the Olympiads come from about 200 high schools…

O’Keeffe, who has a daughter who competed in the math Olympiad, is inclined to agree. “Anecdotally, I do think the difference a community makes is enormous,” she says. “If you’re lucky enough to be at a school with a math club, you might be the only girl in it. At Exeter or Stuyvesant [a prominent Manhattan public high school], you might be in a minority, but you won’t be alone.” To be more rigorous, though, Ellison wants to track many individual students over time…

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