Last week's announcement that overall scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test have begun to climb nationally masked what many Washington area educators say is a persistent problem:
Girls continue to lag far behind boys in mathematics.
Although the 1985 SAT scores showed the biggest single-year overall gain in 22 years for the nation's high school seniors, they evidenced no progress toward erasing the longtime gender gap in mathematics.
That troubles many educators in the Washington area.
"I am not able to accept the fact that girls can't do as well as boys," said Laura I. McDowall, a Fairfax County School Board member who has called for steps to counter the problem.
Nationally, girls trailed boys by 47 points this year, 499 to 452, despite the efforts of some people to change female stereotypes and despite the growing female enrollment in sophisticated high school mathematics courses.
The national gap this year is three points greater than in 1972, when the College Board began reporting separate male and female scores. In Washington-area schools, this year's disparity ranged from 40 to 50 points. The Washington-area scores are for public school students in suburban Maryland and Virginia and both public and private school students in the District.
The SAT, taken by about a million college-bound students each year, is divided into a test of mathematics and verbal skills. Each section has a possible score of 200 to 800 points.
The gap between males and females is particularly puzzling in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where the top mathematics courses enroll about equal numbers of girls and boys. In fact, the College Board reports that the male-female difference in mathematics is greatest -- 60 points -- among students in the top 10 percent of their classes.
Educators in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties are disturbed enough by the gap to promise action or study. In Montgomery County, the school board voted last Monday to encourage more enrollment of girls in math-related classes and to increase their acquaintance with women in traditionally male-dominated careers.
In the District, however, a top official said that his first priority is to raise all student scores, not concentrate on a few.
"I'm not overly concerned to spend a hell of a lot of energy on the few differences between males and females," said James T. Guines, associate superintendent of instruction. "Maybe they suburban schools have the luxury to be concerned."
Many educators say that the gender gap may be partly rooted in a complex combination of influences from society, teachers and parents. The message many girls receive, these educators say, is that females are not expected to do well at mathematics. And if they are not encouraged to try, the result is that they do not.
"I'm afraid it's your standard, garden-variety sex stereotyping," said Leslie R. Wolfe, a former U.S. Education Department official who heads the private Project on Equal Education Rights.
Fairfax County's McDowall believes that the female lag in mathematics has some parallels with another issue now on educators' minds: the lower scores of minority students on standardized tests.
"A whole lot of it has to do with expectations, raising kids to believe that they can learn," she said.
Although some researchers suggest that boys genetically may be more predisposed to mathematical skills than girls, no local educator could be found who volunteered that point of view.
Wolfe said that despite superficial changes in society, "The experience in the classroom is different for male and female students."
Teachers, she said, ask boys more complex questions and push them to try again if they get the answer wrong. Girls are told to try again next time.
Local school systems defend their teachers, but many school systems recently began including a sexism training session in their human relations classes for teachers.
Montgomery County sponsors a series of tapes on women and mathematics, with separate versions for teachers, counselors, parents and students. In Fairfax County, teacher workshops have included sessions on the need to be sensitive to what some call "female math anxiety."
Experts agree that girls do well at basic computation but trail in areas of math-related problem-solving. Standardized tests in Fairfax County indicate that girls keep up with boys in mathematics until the 11th grade, when they fall behind in areas calling for logical thinking and reasoning.
"Females are not challenged in the courses that they take or in everyday living patterns to do a substantial amount of logical thinking and reasoning," said L. Joy Odom, secondary mathematics coordinator for the Montgomery County schools.
Look at what they do on the weekends, she says: Boys play chess and memorize football plays. Girls get together and talk.
Based on last week's School Board vote to encourage girls to do better at math, Odom plans to urge more attention to the subject in county-sponsored SAT preparation courses.
But the key, Odom and other educators say, is to influence girls in the seventh or eighth grade, when attitudes are being formed that will carry through high school.
Last year, Odom tried something new: she had seventh-graders work on mathematics problems in groups. What she did not tell them, at first, was that those problems had no solutions. The point was to get the students to think mathematically and to ease their anxiety about mathematics.
The results, as demonstrated by scores on standardized tests, were "astoundingly good," Odom said. She expanded the program to the eighth grade this year.
In Prince George's County, the schools have emphasized mathematics by adding a required unit three years ago, hiring six instructors to help teachers and adopting a new elementary school textbook that emphasizes problem-solving, said Louise F. Waynant, associate superintendent for instruction.
Fairfax County has improved its advice to girls on mathematics and last summer tried a two-week program in which 28 intermediate school girls visited local businesses and met women who used a lot of mathematics in their jobs.
But, said Marjorie C. McClurg, the mathematics coordinator for the county schools:
"That girl at 15 is sometimes more concerned about what the little boy sitting next to her is going to think than what the teacher is doing. It is not so simplistic that the problem is going to be solved by the schools."