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Motivation May Not Improve Student Scores, While Girls Still March Forward

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At schools around the globe, girls outscore boys, and bored students are better test-takers than their more motivated peers. These topsy-turvy observations are the latest findings in a report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution, research that is part of a long-running series that aims to put a finger on the pulse of academics in the United States and abroad.

The study by Brookings scholar Tom Loveless is a pell-mell of counterintuitive findings that call into question many of the widely held tropes about what works in boosting student learning.

Loveless relied on data from the past 15 years of domestic and international assessments to conclude that:

  • On measures of student engagement, several countries noted for their superior performance on a much-cited international test—including Korea, Japan, Finland, Poland, and the Netherlands—rank below average on levels of student interest;
  • Increasing a student’s enjoyment of reading doesn’t correlate with improved reading scores, or at least such was the case when comparing student surveys to reading scores on an international assessment;
  • On measures of student motivation, many countries saw their math scores decline even though their students reported higher levels of motivation;
  • Meanwhile some countries saw scores jump even though their students voiced less confidence;
  • Domestically and abroad, girls rule in school, a finding that is consistent with previous studies. Finland owes its heavyweight education status to its girls as the nation’s boys trail by a wide margin the academic achievement of their female peers. In fact, every wealthy country — including the United States — has an education system where girls outperform boys. What’s really surprising is that by adulthood, that gap disappears.


As far back as 1942, U.S. girls have outperformed boys on standardized tests that measure reading ability, Loveless found. More recently, girls on average have scored higher than boys on the nation’s gold standard for gauging how much students know, the National Assessment for Educational Progress. On the 2012 literacy assessment, national averages for girls were six to 10 points higher than for boys across various grade levels. Loveless writes that many experts equate 10 points on NAEP to roughly a year of learning, suggesting that on average girls’ understanding of reading is equivalent to more than a half-year of schooling over boys. (In math, boys had a slight edge over girls on the 2012 NAEP, with average scores ranging from one to three points higher.)

Still, compared to other gaps, like those between white and Latino students or those between kids from low-income households and their more affluent classmates, the lead girls have over boys is paltry. “Looking at it by racial identity and socioeconomic status, the differences are just much greater by those categories,” said Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, a group that promotes equity for girls and women. According to another version of NAEP that measures performance by age over time, the gap in reading between 9-year-old students who qualify for a federal lunch subsidy – a commonly used proxy for poverty – and those who don’t is 28 points. White students score 23 points higher on average than black students.

Nor is it the case the reading gap between boys and girls is widening. Since 2004, boys have been catching up to their female peers according to NAEP.  “Gaps are smaller for all age groups now than they were 30 years ago, and smaller than they were in the mid-90s,” said Loveless in an interview with EWA. But we don’t know why the gap is narrowing. “Kids’ activities have changed, but any sort of causal conclusion we could draw from those changes and (the test scores) is absolutely speculative,” Loveless added.

As scholars and policymakers attempt to find the instructional medicine to improve male reading scores, Loveless cautions against learning from Finland, the Scandinavian powerhouse in academic outcome scores. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, the Northern European country has the largest gender gap in reading among 15-year-olds: 62 points,  double that of the United States. Finland’s male scores are basically in a statistical dead heat with America’s 15-year-old males.

The large disparity in performance between Finland’s boys and girls speaks to a greater issue of just how much we can learn from other countries, Loveless writes. Before we borrow Finland’s educational playbook, for example, it’s crucial that U.S. policymakers determine whether the reforms that morphed that nation into an academic powerhouse might also behind its notable gender gap, Loveless contends.

And while it’s clear a global gender gap exists, the remedies for narrowing it are less obvious. According to PISA data, girls report enjoying reading more than boys – so is making reading more fun for boys the answer? Using an index that measures changes to survey results boys provided on how much they enjoy reading, Loveless shows that between 2000 and 2009 PISA scores for boys in Germany grew by 10 points in the same period the country saw a slight gain the reading enjoyment index. In France, however, reading enjoyment among boys grew slightly in the same period that their scores on PISA dropped by 15 points. Ireland’s boys reported enjoying reading more, too, though its actual scores fell 36 points in that same period, Loveless writes.

Several authors and scholars have tackled the causes behind the male malaise in the classroom, pointing to Canada and Australia as countries that have made strides in closing the gender gap in reading. These countries too have witnessed declines in male PISA reading scores, Loveless notes.

Still, perhaps the attention paid to the lag between boys and girls is overblown: On a reading assessment issued to adults in 2012, male and female scores were even by adulthood.

Student engagement

Lifting motivation among students in math is no recipe for good results, the Brookings report shows. Students in developing countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Tunisia demonstrated some of the highest self-assessment scores for feeling motivated about going to school to learn math, even though their actual math results were some of the lowest of the several dozen countries that participated in PISA. Students in academic juggernauts Korea, Finland and Japan measured much lower on the motivation index yet tend to lead the globe in educational achievement.

“It’s just fascinating – countries that do very well on PISA in mathematics, countries like Finland, Korea, Japan and Netherlands, they score terribly on this motivation index,” Loveless aid. “Kids don’t look intrinsically motivated at all.”

Accounting for the discrepancy, Loveless writes in the report that given the lower standard of living in the developing countries listed, “students who sat for PISA may be an unusually motivated group” and “may be deeply appreciative of having an opportunity that their parents never had.”

Lifting motivation actually may not be a worthwhile policy goal. Loveless analyzed the intrinsic motivation data released by PISA between 2003 and 2012 and found that in numerous countries, as motivation went down, scores rose. “The answer is the opposite of what you’d expect,” said Loveless. “There were eight countries where motivation went down — they actually gained [an average of] 10 points on the PISA.”

American PISA takers, for what it’s worth, tend to look forward to math courses more than students in most other PISA-participating countries, though they are less likely to enjoy math than students in other countries. A recent report by the National Association of State Boards of Education made the case for increasing student engagement to improve their scores.

Within middling and top-performing countries, the students who self-reported enjoying math scored higher than those who did not – creating a trend that ran opposite to what happens when Loveless compared countries to each other. In the U.S. more motivated students scored higher than their less motivated peers.