SAT Strategy by Gender: Men Guess, Women Leave it Blank

(Digital Vision)

To guess or not to guess?  Most students wrestle with this question at least once during their multiple choice test-taking years. A new paper by Harvard economics grad student Katherine Baldiga examines whether men and women approach the issue differently. From the abstract:

In this paper, we present the results of an experiment that explores whether women skip more questions than men. The experimental test consists of practice questions from the World History and U.S. History SAT II subject tests; we vary the size of the penalty imposed for a wrong answer and the salience of the evaluative nature of the task. We find that when no penalty is assessed for a wrong answer, all test-takers answer every question. But, when there is a small penalty for wrong answers and the task is explicitly framed as an SAT, women answer significantly fewer questions than men. We see no differences in knowledge of the material or confidence in these test-takers, and differences in risk preferences fail to explain all of the observed gap. Because the gender gap exists only when the task is framed as an SAT, we argue that differences in competitive attitudes may drive the gender differences we observe. Finally, we show that, conditional on their knowledge of the material, test-takers who skip questions do significantly worse on our experimental test, putting women and more risk averse test-takers at a disadvantage.”

Baldiga’s results might help explain why women often do better in college than their SAT scores would have predicted and raise an important question: Are multiple-choice test scores the best way to fairly “measure aptitude and forecast future achievement”?  Readers, what do you think?  Are SAT tests gender-biased?  Of course, whether or not such gender differences are innate or cultural is a whole other research question.


(HT: Market Design)


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  1. Owen says:

    People have already done research showing High School GPA is the best to “measure aptitude and forecast future achievement”

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  2. Rik says:

    I thought the different SAT taking strategies of boys and girls and their willingness to guess was already known. I can remember this “fact” being thrown around in my SAT prep classes in the 90s.

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  3. Ollie says:

    I attended a high school in a foreign country. A significant number of our students have taken the SAT tests and consequently attended US universities throughout the years. Though the school doesn’t keep statistical data, from what teachers and counselors have shared, overall women here perform better. I was surprised when I read statistical data which stated that women in the US performed better in the verbal section and men in the math section, because in our case it was usually women performing slightly better on both sections. Anyway, we were all taught to never leave a blank answer, despite the penalty points. Of course, I don’t have enough data to claim that, but do you think the differences may have something to do with the type of educational system at hand, teachers’ training and advice etc.? Maybe even parents’ expectations play a role.

    I think multiple-choice tests are not the best indicator of later success but they are fairly accurate and probably the best we have at hand now.

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  4. robin marlowe says:

    Woops, upon second thought almost all. As to the issue at hand, I once took a standardized test in “social studies.” The thing is, I never took a college course in the subject. Bought a book, made educated guesses. That’s what someone suggested that I do. Low and behold- I did well- without any formal training. So women can be taught to behave otherwise than they would. Does this not mean that men can learn as well. I do have reason to think so.

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  5. Adam says:

    If you know at least 1 answer is wrong, you should guess between the others. If girls aren’t doing this, they should. I don’t think the test needs to be changed. If there are 20 questions with 5 possible choices and you guess randomly, you get 4 right (4pts), 16 wrong (-.25 * 16 = -4) and you end up with 0 (current scoring). If you can eliminate 1 choice from each, you should get 5 right (5 points) and 15 wrong (-.25 * 15 = 3.75) and you end up with 1.25. This improvement expresses your partial knowledge on the subject.

    If girls did better on the verbal section of the test would we call the test gender-biased or would we just say that the boys need to do better there?

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  6. Dorado says:

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. Women are the more risk-averse of the sexes. The main difference is testosterone influences aggression and risk-taking. Since obviously men produce much more then women, a man is more likely to think to himself: “I don’t know the answer but I have a 25% chance of being right” when confronted with a question he is unsure of. A female test-taker would worry more about the repercussions (losing points, failing the exam, etc) than the possibility of being right. Basically, testosterone makes men more likely to go against the grain and break the mold so to speak which explains why most societies, cultural institutions, inventions, have all been created/founded by men.

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