It's report card day for America's eighth graders, and when it comes to technology and engineering, it's the girls who've come out on top.
Girls scored an average of three points higher than boys on the first-ever national test of technology and engineering literacy, administered by the federal government as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2014. The results were made public for the first time today.
The test found that 45 percent of girls performed at or above proficiency level, compared to 42 percent of boys.
The exam was given to a nationally representative sample of 21,500 eighth graders in 840 public and private schools across the country. It assessed students' skills in areas like understanding technological principles, developing solutions, and communicating and collaborating -- "the exact kind of thinking that the modern world demands at home and in the workplace, no matter the career path," Terry Mazany, chair of the board that oversees NAEP, said in a statement.
Girls tested particularly well in that last area, communicating and collaborating. Overall, there was no area in which boys outperformed girls.
The executive director of Moms as Mentors, Leslie Coles, was particularly excited to see that skills like communication and collaboration had a place in the national exam. Coles' organization works to engage mothers and daughters together in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- education as a way to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers themselves.
"Often, technical skills are seen as the most important and collaboration skills are put down as soft skills. I like that this test treated all those skills are equally important. It validates what it actually takes to be successful in these careers, and shows that girls have that," Coles said.
A congressionally mandated project, NAEP is best known for releasing data every two years assessing math and reading literacy among students nationwide. The new test provides a baseline NAEP can now use to measure students' progress in technology and engineering literacy in the years to come.
In the exam, students were tested using computer simulations of technology and engineering challenges set in real-world contexts. Tasks included, for instance, designing a safer bike route through neighborhood streets; creating a safe iguana habitat; and developing an online exhibit on Chicago's historic water pollution problem.
The difference between girls and boys' results was not consistent across racial and ethnic groups. Overall, female white students and female black students outperformed their male peers, while there was no significant gender difference among Hispanic and Asian students.
The test results are revealing in other ways, as well. Students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program -- a common metric to gauge poverty among students -- scored 28 points lower than students in higher socioeconomic brackets who are not eligible for the program.
In general, students who did activities outside of school that focused on design and systems -- such as participating in a robotics club or fixing things on their own -- scored higher, emphasizing the importance of enrichment opportunities outside the classroom.
There was also a confidence gap. On average, eighth graders who believed they could do various technology and engineering related tasks scored higher than students who did not believe that about themselves.
For Coles, the test results underscore that the gap between boys and girls in STEM comes down to "confidence, not competence." Middle school -- a period when many girls start to pull back, stop participating in class, and question their capabilities -- is a critical juncture to prevent girls from drifting away from technology and engineering, she said. After middle school, high school students start selecting their own classes, consciously or unconsciously narrowing down their career choices in the long term.
"If they decide not to take calculus, that one class choice can really narrow things for them," she said.
Today's results provide helpful fuel against the argument that females are less capable of tackling society's enormous technology and engineering challenges, Coles said.
"With a bit of encouragement and the right opportunities and the right access, it doesn't take too much to get girls to see how far they can go. If you even told girls these results, I think it would make them more confident," she said.