The phrase “reading is fundamental” is more than just a catchphrase; it's a truism.

According to data provided by the California State Department of Education and analyzed by CALmatters, three out of four African-American boys in California failed to meet the reading and writing standards on the state's most recent round of testing, Mercury News reports.

For years now, girls have outperformed boys in the English section of standardized tests across ethnicity and economic status lines. However, nowhere is the disparity as sharp as it is with black girls and boys, with 50 percent of all of California's black boys earning the lowest possible score on the English section of their exams.

This has led some experts to wonder if there doesn't need to be some special emphasis placed on male literacy, similar to the initiatives that have been created to boost girls in STEM.

“If boys don’t read as well as girls, and if that persists all the way through K-12, it means when you reach certain thresholds like college, it places the males at a disadvantage,” Tom Loveless, a researcher at the Brookings Institution said. “The ability to read well has a lot to do with the ability to get into college and the ability to do well while you’re in college.”

Experts have a lot of ideas about what might be causing the gap.

“Part of this may be structural, in having texts that aren’t relevant to the experiences and legacy of African-American boys,” said Chris Chatmon, founding executive director of the African-American Male Achievement program at the Oakland Unified School District. “When a lot of the curriculum you have access to isn’t familiar, or doesn’t acknowledge your past or your present, you have a tendency not to be engaged with it or want to read it.”

Other, less thoughtful theories, include the old “differently hardwired brain” theory, which was once used to explain why girls seemed to perform worse than boys in science and math.

“That there is something about the male and female brains — that we’re just hardwired differently — if that’s really true, at that point it’s doubtful we’re really going to be able to fix it,” Loveless said. Thanks to recent advances of girls and young women in STEM, however, Loveless notes that this theory is finally fading into the realm of pseudoscience, where it belongs.

Branching off from the "differently hardwired brain" theory, is another, similar one: that our culture teaches boys at an early age that reading and writing are "feminine" activities, and they they ought to devote themselves to something else so that they can be "real men."

This theory is debunked by international data, however. You see, girls reading way better than boys isn't just an American problem. Pretty much every nation in the world has been seeing the same thing. And in places with less rigid gender norms like Scandinavia or countries with very different gender norms like Japan, the problem persists. 

With that theory in serious doubt, Loveless offers a third one: that boys need recess to "blow off steam" in order to focus, but now that many districts are cutting recess, male students have too much energy to focus. On top of that he says, a lack of male teachers means that young boys don't have role models that look like them to show them reading is cool.

Like the second theory, however, Loveless cautions that this third theory stems from old-fashion stereotypes.

So basically, boys' reading scores are a problem, and researchers have no idea why this is happening.

Although from the things they're coming up with, it kinda sounds like they need a few more women and minorities on their research teams.

If you have a child, and you'd like some help making sure that they are reading as well as they can be, head over to and ReadWriteThink.

Also, if you haven't already, check out our feature on Barbershop Books which specifically focuses on literacy for black boys.