Date of Award

Fall 1998

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Joseph Onosko


This study explored the reasons why males outperform females on the AP US History examination, a three-part, college-level test taken by large numbers of high-achieving grade 11 students each year. Males tend to outperform females on the overall test, and on the multiple-choice section. Females show relatively stronger performance on the examination's document-based question (a section that requires analysis of original historical documents). Performance on the standard-essay part of the test does not consistently favor either sex.

Moving beyond explanations that rely on sex-related generalized differences in ability and interest, the study explored the possibility that performance was dependent on conceptions about the nature of historical truth and characteristic ways of organizing new information. It was hypothesized that males and females think about historical truth and organize information differently, and that these differences would provide relative advantages on the three different types of items used on the AP US History examination.

Cluster sampling of intact classes from public high schools in two New England states (MA and NH) resulted in a sample of 190 students (106 females and 84 males) from 14 schools. Students selected for the sample completed four instruments: (a) the Nature of Historical Explanation and Truth questionnaire; (b) the Narrative/Paradigmatic Organization of Knowledge questionnaire; (c) the Bem Sex-Role Inventory; and (d) the Student Biographical questionnaire. The overall score and scores for the three sections of the 1997 AP US History examination served as outcome variables in the study.

Nineteen hypotheses which focused on possible sex and gender-linked conceptions of historical truth and cognitive orientation and differences in performance by sex on the AP US History examination were tested. Analysis of the data showed both female and male students to be academically able and positively disposed toward history. Though students in the sample showed evidence of advanced epistemological development, neither cognitive orientation nor epistemic disposition (conceptions of historical truth) was found to be a strong predictor of performance on the AP US History examination. For both males and females, examination performance was most closely related to PSAT scores and the school attended.