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August 3, 2004 | Volume 2 | Number 16
The Effects on Adolescent Girls of a Girls-Only Math and Science Curriculum

The Effects on Adolescent Girls of a Girls-Only Math and Science Curriculum

The Question

What are the effects of a girls-only math and science curriculum on the academic performance, persistence, and engagement of adolescent girls?

The Context

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released newly proposed guidelines that could expand flexibility for schools and districts interested in providing single-sex schools or classes. These guidelines, spurred by amendments within the No Child Left Behind Act (Section 5131, Part C), have reignited a debate in the United States between supporters of single-sex instruction and supporters of coeducational classrooms and schools. Similar debates have been going on in England over the last decade, and researchers in many countries have explored the issue. Although the body of research into single-sex classes and schools is generally inconclusive, some research has suggested an academic benefit for girls, particularly in mathematics and science achievement, as well as increased self-confidence. However, these effects are often attenuated when background variables (such as wealth and prior achievement) are held constant. Although the focus is generally on academic achievement, some activists worry that separate education will complicate the transition of students to a gender-integrated society and that equity issues will be exacerbated. Other activists worry that gender equity issues focus primarily on supporting girls in subjects where boys have traditionally excelled, rather than helping boys and girls overcome gender-oriented stereotypes.

The U.S. Department of Education recently commissioned a two-year study on the effects of single-sex schools; however, that research effort will focus on single-sex schools and not separate classes within coeducational schools. The research highlighted in this brief looks at single-sex classes within one public high school in Ontario, Canada.

The Details

Jennifer Shapka and Daniel Keating conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). In 1993, the school board in Ontario created a subgroup of all-girl science and mathematics classes in the 9th and 10th grades in one local high school (mathematics and science courses at the 11th and 12th grades remained coeducational). These classes were located in a high-achieving suburban school, and although participation was voluntary, girls enrolling in the courses needed to have a 70-percent average in their 7th and 8th grade math courses.

Researchers chose a demographically similar school in the same suburban area to use as a control in evaluating the effect of the single-sex classes. During data analysis, they also controlled for parental education, prior student achievement, student perceptions of parental expectations, and student perceptions of teacher effectiveness. Using academic records and student surveys, researchers examined seven outcomes:

  1. Math achievement (as represented by course grades)
  2. Science achievement (as represented by course grades)
  3. Math course enrollments
  4. Science course enrollments
  5. Self-reported math anxiety
  6. Self-reported competence
  7. Self-reported effort expended

Student data was collected for 9th, 10th, and 11th grades in 1993 and then again two years later, in 11th, 12th, and 13th grades (at that time in the province of Ontario a grade 13 was required of students planning to attend college).

Ultimately, the data sample included 57 girls from single-sex classes, 51 coeducational girls, and 123 coeducational boys in the treatment school; and 121 coeducational girls and 122 coeducational boys from the control school. The curriculum in the treatment school was the same for both single-sex and coeducational classes, and the curriculum in the control school was the same for all students in that school as well. The curriculum between the treatment school and the control group, however, was not necessarily the same.

The data was analyzed in four steps. First, researchers tested for biases due to sample attrition between 1993 and 1995. Next, researchers tested the data to ensure equivalence and comparability between the student groups. Third, researchers analyzed the seven outcomes identified earlier. Finally the researchers examined the role of engagement in performance differences and enrollment persistence.

Controlling for school effects, prior achievement, parental education and perceived expectations, perceived teacher effectiveness, the researchers found enrollment in girls-only courses significantly correlated with higher female student math and science achievement, enrollment, and persistence. Although girls in general outscored coeducational boys, girls in the single-sex classrooms outperformed coeducational boys and girls (effect size of .04 in math and .06 in science) and enrolled in more advanced courses upon return to the coeducational setting (effect size of .01 in math and .02 in science). These successes, however, did not translate into reductions in math anxiety or perceived math competence, although girls in single-sex classes did feel that they put much more effort into their work than did coeducation boys and girls.

The Bottom Line

Mathematics and science instruction in girls-only classrooms may result in higher achievement levels and enrollment persistence for girls enrolled in those classes.

Who's Affected?

This study focused on high-achieving girls in a suburban Canadian high school.


As identified by the authors, a number of limitations to this study may preclude generalizing the findings to the broader population of girls enrolled in high school math and science courses. The study focused on high-achieving girls in a suburban Canadian high school, and although the authors did try to control for prior achievement, it is possible that the findings were the result of an absence of low-achievers in the single-sex classrooms, rather than the all-girl population. Also, because the study focused on high-achieving suburban schools, the findings may not apply to urban or rural schools or classes with a significant number of low achievers.

In addition, the study used a variety of proxy measures for achievement and teacher quality, rather than direct observation or direct quantitative measurement. The researchers identified differences in outcomes; however, they did not look at the internal structures and behaviors within the classes that may have accounted for those outcomes--for example, did teaching methods differ in the single-sex and the coeducational classes?

The Study

Shapka, J. D., & Keating, D. P. (2003). Effects of a girls-only curriculum during adolescence: Performance, persistence, and engagement in mathematics and science. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 929–960.

Other Resources

Federal Study Examining Single-Sex Public Schools
Education Week

Rules on Single-Sex Education Allow Room to Experiment
Education Week

Department to Provide More Educational Options for Parents and Proposed Rules
U.S. Department of Education

Single-Sex and Coeducational Schooling: Relationships to Socioemotional and Academic Development
Review of Educational Research


All comments regarding ReseachBrief should be sent to To speak directly with an ASCD staff member, please Contact Us.

Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.