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The PSAT Test is Fair to Women

By Robyn E. Blumner


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Posted 24-Sept-1996

The case against the Virginia Military Institute was a triumph for sexual equality. The Supreme Court ruled definitively that state-funded educational institutions could not bar women from their ranks. Lawsuits such as th is, which dismantle special government-sponsored opportunities and privileges for men, have helped to level the playing field.

Unfortunately, for some a level field is not enough. Rather than being content with the intrinsic fairness of equality of opportunity, they seek the rigid orthodoxy of equality of result.

That is the misguided philosophy which prompted a group of lawyers associated with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project to petition the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, asking that it find the National Merit Scholarship Competition discrimi nates against women.

Each year about 15,000 semifinalists are chosen by the Competition out of the million students who take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Tests, better known as the PSAT--the pre-test for the SAT. This means that approximately 985,000 students are el iminated from the scholarship competition based solely on their test scores. The semi-finalist pool is usually 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

Scholarships, nearly 6,500 of them, are then awarded from among the semi-finalists based upon one's PSAT score and other factors such as high school record, personal essay and recommendations. This 60/40, male/female ratio is normally maintained in the a warding of scholarships.

The attorneys claim that because 55 percent of those who compete for the scholarships are female, yet are awarded only about 40 percent of the scholarships, the PSAT test and NMSC are biased against females. The attorneys allege in their administrative c omplaint that somehow, although they do not specifically say how, this objective test that evaluates verbal and mathematical proficiency, discriminates on the basis of sex. And they point to the fact that women generally have higher grades in both high s chool and college than their male counterparts to bolster their claims.

The relief sought for this alleged violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funds, is that the testing administration should be denied any further federal funding.

The complaint was filed in 1994, and as yet there has been no action on it by the Department. Yet it shouldn't take the government years to throw out this frivolous complaint. Not only is it absurd to argue that the PSAT--an objective evaluative tool fo r measuring scholastic ability--is discriminatory, such an assertion suggests that girls are not capable of competing equally with boys on such tests--itself a discriminatory notion.

Recent history is replete with examples of testing schemes inherently unfair to women, but the PSAT isn't one of them.

When the Supreme Court struck down the height and weight requirements established by the state of Alabama for their prison guard positions, the court was eliminating a testing paradigm that, although neutral on its face, clearly discriminated against wome n. Women are not as tall or heavy, on average, as men. Unless there is a direct correlation between those measurements and job performance, the discriminatory test must go.

But that is not the case with the PSAT. The PSAT measures one's facility in reading comprehension, deductive reasoning, basic geometry and algebra. Unless one is willing to concede that women on average are not as able to master these subjects as men (wh ich I am certainly not), the test is not susceptible to the same claims of inherent unfairness.

So why do women do worse on these tests than men, yet consistently earn higher college grades? Reasons in studies cited by Jeffrey Penn a spokesman for The College Board, an organization which co-sponsors the PSAT and SAT tests, include the fact that the socio-economic backgrounds of the men and women who takes these tests are markedly different. Women test takers tend to come from families in lower income brackets. Women test takers predominantly come from families with income levels of $40,000 or bel ow compared with family income levels of $70,000 or above for men. In addition there are still lingering differences in the types of high school courses women and men take. Women test takers tend to study less math and science than men test takers. Th ese factors, if controlled for, eliminate much of the score differentials. This sex-defined taste in curriculum may also explain why women tend to have higher grade averages in high school and college.

But whatever the reason, the response should not be as one team of researchers suggested, to correct for the bias in the test "by adding some number of points to women's scores." Howard Wainer and Linda Steinberg, researchers for the Educational Testing Service also recommended in their study "Sex Differences in Performance on the Mathematics Section of the SAT," culling the Merit Scholarship semi-finalists down to 15,000 and then awarding scholarships along sex segregated lists so that half go to females.

Both these suggestions are not only unfair to the men who attained superior scores on the PSAT, but they are outright insulting to women. Such a leg-up approach presumes women simply lack to ability to compete with men on these academically rigorous tests.

The ACLU attorneys fail to point to any specific defect with the current test. Nor do they suggest ways to change the test itself in order to eliminate the gender discrepancy. Instead they focus purely on the result--that women don't score as highly as men--and call the test discriminatory.

Well, I don't buy it. A gender discriminatory test is one which asks about the winner of the 1969 World Series, not one which asks for the square root of 24,025. If women are ever going to realize the dream of true equality, they must compete with men o n the same testing grounds, under the same rules.

When VMI sought to exclude women from its campus, it justified the exclusion by claiming that women couldn't tolerate the school's regimen. The Supreme Court refused to abide such stereotyping, demanding that women who are physically and mentally qualifi ed be given the opportunity to attend the prestigious state-funded institution. The Court did not order VMI to lower their recruitment standards in order to admit women, knowing full well such a ruling would undercut claims of equality and condemn female VMI cadets to second-class citizenship.

Similarly, any reduction in the standards women have to meet to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship would only tarnish the prize and cast doubt on the achievement. Women's opportunities to go head-to-head with their male contemporaries should not b e robbed by the well-intentioned. With grit, effort and persistence, women can close that gender gap without resorting to the courts. Hopefully, the Department of Education will agree.