Sex differences in cognitive abilities test scores: a UK national picture

Br J Educ Psychol. 2006 Sep;76(Pt 3):463-80. doi: 10.1348/000709905X50906.


Background and aims: There is uncertainty about the extent or even existence of sex differences in the mean and variability of reasoning test scores ( Jensen, 1998; Lynn, 1994, ; Mackintosh, 1996). This paper analyses the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) scores of a large and representative sample of UK pupils to determine the extent of any sex differences.

Sample: A nationally representative UK sample of over 320,000 school pupils aged 11-12 years was assessed on the CAT (third edition) between September 2001 and August 2003. The CAT includes separate nationally standardized tests for verbal, quantitative, and non-verbal reasoning. The size and recency of the sample is unprecedented in research on this issue.

Methods: The sheer size of the sample ensures that any sex difference will achieve statistical significance. Therefore, effect sizes (d) and variance ratios (VR) are employed to evaluate the magnitude of sex differences in mean scores and in score variability, respectively.

Results: The mean verbal reasoning score for girls was 2.2 standard score points higher than the mean for boys, but only 0.3 standard points in favour of girls for non-verbal reasoning (NVR), and 0.7 points in favour of boys for quantitative reasoning (QR). However, for all three tests there were substantial sex differences in the standard deviation of scores, with greater variance among boys. Boys were over represented relative to girls at both the top and the bottom extremes for all tests, with the exception of the top 10% in verbal reasoning.

Conclusions: Given the small differences in means, explanations for sex differences in wider domains such examination attainment at age 16 need to look beyond conceptions of 'ability'. Boys tend to be both the lowest and the highest performers in terms of their reasoning abilities, which warns against the danger of stereotyping boys as low achievers.

MeSH terms

  • Achievement*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Educational Measurement
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United Kingdom