High-Stakes Exams can put Female Students at a Disadvantage

Women are more heavily influenced than men by test anxiety, and points to ways to help close the gender gap.

High-Stakes Exams can put Female Students at a Disadvantage
A new study shows that the anxiety of taking an exam has a more significant impact on women’s grades than it does for men. (Image credit: kali9 / Getty Images)

According to a new study by the Standford University, in introductory biology courses, women tend to perform worse than men on high-stakes exams. It also suggests that they are better at other types of assessments, such as lab work and written assignments.

The investigation also demonstrates that the uneasiness of taking an exam has a more critical effect on ladies’ evaluations than it improves the situation men. Such high-stakes exams disadvantage women because of the stronger effect that test anxiety has on women’s performance.

During the study, scientists analyzed 1,562 students in 10 large introductory biology course sections during fall 2016. They analyzed student’s exam scores and credit non-exam assessments like lab activities, discussion sections, written assignments, etc.

Scientists found that the performance of female students in biology exam was worse than the male students. On the other hand, they performed well on the non-exam assessments.

This suggests that the probability that high-pressure testing does not satisfactorily catch a student’s understanding.

Shima Salehi, a doctoral student at Stanford Graduate School of Education said, “Other studies have shown that students’ performance on high-stakes exams is not a good predictor for whether they’re acquiring the skills that STEM professionals need. And if psychological barriers prevent women from performing optimally on exams, it may be time to reconsider exams as a primary method for evaluating students’ knowledge.”

To figure the cause behind it, scientists mainly focused on two factors. 1. Test anxiety and 2. A lack of interest in the subject. They surveyed a subset of the subject pool before final exams about their anxiety and their interest in the course content.

Here, they asked students to rate statements that properly suits their situation. For anxiety, the statements were like-‘ I am so nervous during a test that I cannot remember facts that I have learned’ and ‘When I take a test, I think about how poorly I am doing.’ And for interest, ‘I think that what I am learning in this course is useful for me to know’ and ‘I think I will be able to use what I learn in this course in later studies’.

Most of the female students reported higher anxiety and higher interest. Among males, neither self-reported test anxiety nor interest in the course.

As women’s interest increased, greater test anxiety diminished their exam performance.

Scientists noted, “These findings point to two possible tactics to help minimize the gender gap in test scores. First, past studies have found that replacing a few high-stakes exams with more frequent low-stakes testing and using other types of assessments to lessen the significance of exams. It can reduce the impact of test anxiety.”

“Second, research indicates that more explicitly connecting the course material to students’ lives can make it more relevant and interesting to them and by nurturing their interest in science. we can create a buffer to shield women from the negative effects of test anxiety.”