Boys have fallen behind in science and lost their long-held dominance in math, and though the results are a Canadian first, the problem may be a familiar one: reading.
Reading has been a weak spot for boys for decades. The latest national standardized test results show the gap between girls and boys in reading is growing, and that it is spreading to math and science.
The results raise questions whether struggles with reading are having a domino effect on boys' academic performance. Whether an isolated event, or a sign of something bigger, they raise a red flag for education.
While the Grade 8 boys lagged 11 points behind girls in science, they were 26 points behind in reading. They were slightly ahead, 5 points, in math, but the difference wasn't statistically significant.
The test, known as the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, or PCAP, uses a blend of multiple-choice and written-response questions. The experts who design and administer the test take special care to ensure that the science and math questions won't disadvantage weak readers, but more than half the questions in the 2010 version required a written response, a slight increase over the last tests in 2007.
This likely created a disadvantage for boys, according to Malkin Dare, president of the Society for Quality Education.
"If they can't read the questions then they can't get them right," she said.
Ms. Dare is an advocate for reform in reading education. Some research suggests that a return to a more phonetic approach to literacy would be helpful to boys, as opposed to newer methods that use cues such as context and syntax, and encourage students to guess at words they don't know.
She believes the current system is setting boys up for failure.
"Not being a good reader at the end of Grade 1 is sort of a like an academic death sentence," she said.
Not everyone is worried by the results. Women are still under-represented in the sciences, and that trend shows no sign of changing. There were nearly four males for every female enrolled in the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo in the fall of 2010, for example. The ratio was nearly 3-to-1 in 2001.
"I think it's a good thing that the girls have caught up [in the testing]" said Gilles Fournier, an assessment expert who helped write the final report on the PCAP results. "Years and years ago it was difficult to get girls to take science courses; now it's the opposite."
Efforts to recruit women into science and to close the achievement gap for boys have sometimes been at odds. Science scores will be the major focus of the next round of PCAP tests in 2013, and educators will get a sense of whether girls are really taking over.
All the fuss over gender is misplaced, according to Wayne Martino, a professor of education at the University of Western Ontario. Socioeconomic status is more closely linked to academic achievement than gender, and the boys issue is distracting education from bigger problems.
"I don't discount the issue that there are issues for boys, but I don't think it's helpful to think as boys as a homogeneous group," he said.
Single-sex education is gaining traction with public-school boards as a way to boost boys' academic achievement. The Calgary Board of Education opened an all-boys school this fall, Calgary's Catholic board hopes to open one next year, and Toronto, which already has a handful of single-sex classrooms and boys' reading clubs, will open a boys academy next fall.