High school test scores revealed this week are raising concerns about whether a gender gap exists in math instruction at the regional high school. And after looking closely at the latest results from advanced placement (AP) tests, school leaders are also wondering whether some advanced and honors classes are over-enrolled.

High school principal Margaret Regan told members of the regional high school committee this week that she is troubled by the results of both SAT math tests and some of the AP tests.

"For the second year in a row, the girls are falling short [on the SAT math section]," she said Monday night at the committee's first meeting of the new school year. According to a breakdown of last year's SAT scores, 40 per cent of the males scored above 600 on math while only 11 per cent of the girls tested at that level.

In 1999, the gap was narrower, but males still outpaced their female counterparts, with 26 per cent scoring above 600 on the math SAT, compared to only 11 per cent of the females.

In raw numbers, the overall group is small. Last year, 121 high school seniors took the SAT, 61 males and 60 females.

But Mrs. Regan believes she has spotted a trend that deserves a response. The gender gap on the Island, she said, is greater than seen in either state or national statistics.

This week, Mrs. Regan recommended instituting a summer math program open to all students but with a special emphasis on attracting females. "We might want to reach back as far as to students in sixth grade," she said. "Move backward and get them up, girls particularly."

But exactly what needs to be done is not yet clear. Mrs. Regan said that high school girls are doing just as well as boys on the state MCAS tests, and that in the highest level, or so-called honors math classes, more girls are enrolled than boys.

"It's not as if they're not taking the classes," she said. "But do we have enough women role models in the math department or the school system?" Of the eight math teachers in the high school, only two are women.

But the problem may have more to do with the way young women learn math, said Mrs. Regan. She referred specifically to insights gleaned from a recent meeting with the civil rights leader and education reformer Robert Moses, who visited the Vineyard last month to celebrate the publication of his new book about teaching algebra in the inner cities of America.

Mrs. Regan met Mr. Moses and is now immersed in his book, Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights. "This may be similar to what Bob Moses is saying," she said. "Some girls can't make the transition from arithmetic to algebra. You have to make that cognitive leap."

Getting girls to excel in math might take some retooling of instruction, she said, much as Mr. Moses has done with success as a teacher in Jackson, Miss.

To Mrs. Regan, there's no choice in the matter. "There are tremendous implications for the instructional practice," she said. "Math is a literacy issue. Your future is undermined if you do not study and understand it."

High school math teacher Doug DeBettencourt does not disagree about the need to make math a priority and make sure girls aren't lost in the process. A few years ago, he decided to help higher level math students make the transition to the high school by offering private tutoring sessions to groups during summer break. Mostly girls signed up.

What Mr. DeBettencourt sees as a top problem is the gender bias of an earlier generation that still views math as an unnecessary skill for young women. "It's a left-over from the 1950s," he said. "But the worst thing a parent can do is say ‘Oh, don't worry if you're not good in math. I couldn't do math either.'"

Instructionally, though, Mr. DeBettencourt is not certain that big changes are in order. He is skeptical about new approaches to teaching math that try to make it a creative process rather than an ordered series of logical steps. And he doubts that there's any gender bias coming from the front of the classroom.

"There aren't teachers who consciously or subconsciously skew anything toward males," he said. One reason for the lower SAT scores, he said, could be a bias in the test itself.

Still, Mr. DeBettencourt believes the gap on scores is a legitimate concern. "The fact that there's a discrepancy in my opinion needs to be addressed," he said. "The fault need not be stuck anywhere, but we should do something to get female students on par."

On the other testing issue raised this week, Mrs. Regan noted some disappointing scores on the AP tests. When fewer than 50 per cent of the students are passing the AP test, she said, that's not acceptable.

After handing committee members a color graph showing test results for the last three years, it was easy to find the trouble spots - biology, chemistry and calculus. In both biology and chemistry last year, fewer than 20 per cent of the students taking the test passed it. In 2000, only 20 per cent passed biology, and 30 per cent passed chemistry.

In calculus, there are two levels, BC being the higher level and AB the lower. In the AB exam last year, fewer than 15 per cent of students passed.

On the bright side, students taking the English, history, Spanish and music AP exams in the last few years have performed much better, with at least 60 per cent of the students earning a passing score of 3, 4 or 5 on the exam. A passing grade can make students eligible for college credit after they graduate high school.

As for the low-scoring subjects, Mrs. Regan said, the problem could be over-enrollment. Under pressure from parents and some students to sign up for the advanced placement classes, their numbers have swelled.

Biology AP alone had two sections and a total of 30 students, said Mrs. Regan. It's a demanding course, and it may have been too much for some, she added.

But what's really driving the high enrollment? Mrs. Regan admits that it might be the practice of competition for class rank. Students in honors or advanced classes earn higher points for their grades than they would if they signed up for lower level classes, known as College 1 and College 2.

For example, a grade of C earned in an honors class would give a student a grade point value of 4, the same value as an A grade in the College 2 level class.

Mrs. Regan had no answer to the problem of low AP scores and the grade-grubbing that may be at its root. She did say the school might need to develop better preparatory classes leading up to the advanced placement courses.