Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

October 2, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section B; Page 8; Column 3; National Desk; Education Page

LENGTH: 1015 words

HEADLINE: College Board Revises Test to Improve Chances for Girls


Resolving a complaint that girls lose out to boys unfairly in the awarding of the prestigious National Merit Scholarships, the College Board has agreed to modify its Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, the main determinant in awarding the scholarships, the Federal Department of Education announced yesterday.

In the agreement, reached with the department's Office of Civil Rights, the College Board said that beginning in 1997, it would add a multiple-choice test on writing to the P.S.A.T. exam, which is taken by juniors. One version of the test taken by seniors, the Scholastic Assessment Test, already contains a similar section on writing.

Donald M. Stewart, president of the College Board, which oversees both tests, said the board expected that the addition of the additional test was likely to give girls higher scores since girls "tend to do better than boys" on that type of test.

But he said there was no guarantee. "We're trying to do everything we can to help girls catch up, and introducing the writing test should be helpful, as well as sending a message that writing is important," he said. "But this may not be enough. We can't predict the outcomes. All we can do is enhance the probabilities." In a complaint filed with the Education Department in 1994, civil rights advocates said that girls tended to score lower on the preliminary assessment test even though their high school and college grades were better and that, as a result, about 60 percent of National Merit Scholarships went to boys.

The groups, including the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, and the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project, charged that the selection process should be changed to reduce the emphasis on P.S.A.T. scores.

Representatives of both organizations expressed skepticism yesterday that adding a section on writing would resolve the problem.

"We're extremely disappointed that the resolution did not go as far as we would like," said Sara Mandelbaum, a staff lawyer for the Women's Rights Project. "We are skeptical that the College Board and the Educational Testing Service can come up with a test that does not discriminate against girls, after decades of having failed to do so."

Robert A. Schaeffer of FairTest said he was disappointed that the selection method would remain largely intact. "Test scores are not merit," he said, "and this preserves the notion that three hours of filling in bubbles one Saturday morning tells us who our best students are."

FairTest and the A.C.L.U. would like to see high school grades and class rank introduced into the early stages of selection for the National Merit Scholarships, rather than the final stages.

The National Merit offices in Evanston, Ill., were closed yesterday evening, and no one could be reached for comment. Because the National Merit organization is private and receives no Federal money, it was not included in the complaint. The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the standardized test, were named because both receive Federal support for their research.

Norma V. Cantu, assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, said she was pleased with the settlement.

"The College Board and E.T.S. feel confident that this will substantially eliminate the gap between girls and boys," she said, "and we agree with their assertions."

But she said that if the gap was not eliminated, her department and the College Board would look at other possible changes. As part of the agreement, the College Board and the testing service also agreed to start conducting research into how how high school grades might be incorporated into the early part of the National Merit selection process .

"We have what I call a belt-and-suspender settlement," she said.

The civil rights office did not determine whether any rights violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 had occurred.

Although girls receive higher grades on average than boys in both high school and college, girls have long earned lower scores on both the standardized tests. Last year, among juniors taking the P.S.A.T., boys averaged 48.8 on the verbal section and 50.8 on the math, on a scale of 20 to 80. Girls averaged 48.6 on the verbal test and 47.4 on the math.

Mr. Stewart of the College Board said that the merit selection process was already tilted to try to compensate for girls' lower math scores by counting the verbal score twice and the math score only once. "The problem in the test is the math," he said. "We would hope that women would do better in the math through education and socialization that will remove the math anxiety that many of them feel. But we can't discriminate against men in the process."

He said that the College Board had planned to introduce the writing section into the P.S.A.T. in 1999 and that the settlement would speed up the change. He said the test was not a writing sample but included questions involving the structure of language and standard written English.

"Women tend to do better than men on this test, about two or three points better on a high score of 800," he said.

Each year, more than a million high school juniors, about 55 percent of them girls, take the P.S.A.T. The top 15,000 scorers, 60 percent of whom are boys, automatically become National Merit semifinalists. These students then submit records of their grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations and essays. About 14,000 are then chosen as finalists.

About half the finalists receive National Merit Scholarships. The value of the scholarships varies widely, up to full college tuition in some cases.

In 1989, a Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that New York State's Regents Scholarships, which were then determined by S.A.T. scores, discriminated against girls. When New York State relied on the standardized test, girls won 43 percent of the scholarships. A year after the court ruling, when the state took grades into consideration, too, girls won 51 percent of the scholarships.