October 15, 1996 in Nation/World

Psat Biased? Wait A Year, Panel Tells Girls College Board Delays Response To Complaints That Important Test Is Unfair To Female Students

Kelly Ryan Dallas Morning News

Hundreds of thousands of high-school juniors will be staking millions of dollars of scholarships this week on what many say is a flawed test.

In response to complaints filed with federal officials that the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test is biased against girls, the test administrator agreed earlier this month to change it. But the change won’t come until next year.

“This means a flawed test will once again this year cheat 2 million girls out of scholarships,” said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, one of the groups that filed the complaint.

Scores from the PSAT are a key factor in awarding nearly $27 million in National Merit scholarships each year, as well as many college grants.

Critics have complained for years that the test discriminates against girls because even though they tend to have higher high-school grades and class rankings, they score lower on the PSAT.

The College Board, a non-profit organization that runs the testing program, agreed to add a writing section to the test in 1997 to help close the gap between boys’ and girls’ scores. Research shows girls often do better at writing.

Officials with the board and Educational Testing Service, which writes and grades the test, deny the exam is biased and said the changes were made to reflect the importance of writing skills to success in college.

“This is part of a planned change that began in the 1990s,” said Janice Gams, a spokeswoman for The College Board. “This is sending a strong signal to kids and schools: ‘Hey, get your writing in order.”’ The agreement settles a 1994 complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by an organized called FairTest and supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think it is remarkable that they have the gall to administer this test after admitting that it’s biased,” said Paul Cohen, a spokesman for Princeton Review, a national firm that prepares students for the PSAT.

Cohen also said he “can’t believe” The College Board is trying to solve bias in favor of boys by adding a section that will be biased in favor of girls.

Nationally, an estimated 1.2 million high school juniors will take the PSAT either today or Saturday.

Officials with the National Center for Fair and Open Testing or FairTest, said they are skeptical that the change will be enough to help girls increase their scores.

“The nature of the test - a fast-paced, multiple-choice game - is a game for which boys do better in our cultural society,” said Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest. “This back-door fix … is still a system based on the notion that test scores are the basis for merit.”

FairTest and others have argued that the scholarship criteria should be broadened.

Gams said the decision to include a writing section was based on a 1990 blue-ribbon commission report that urged the board to “adapt its tests so that they assess a greater variety of skills and knowledge.”

The commission concluded that the board should ask more questions that require students to demonstrate “actual skills used in college work, such as writing and problem solving, rather than simply choosing correct answers in a multiple-choice format.”

College Board officials said that the new writing section will have multiple-choice questions about word choice, sentence structure, organization and development.

Nancy Burton, an Educational Testing Service program administrator, said she thinks the added portion will mean higher scores for girls.

“Writing is a skill that young women definitely do better on than young men,” she said. “We have been emphasizing it writing more recently. Educationally, it’s so important to be able to write.”

Norma Cantu, assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, said the settlement “resolves all concerns our department had.”

“We believe the resolution will be effective,” she said. “We were satisfied that the gender gap would be eliminated by the changes in the PSAT.”

The Department of Education investigated FairTest’s claims against the PSAT under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits federally funded school programs from participating in gender-based discrimination.

Cantu said although the department found evidence of unequal educational opportunities for boys and girls, it did not officially conclude that the PSAT is biased against girls.

“We didn’t make any kind of final decisions of where the civil rights problems were or what was causing them,” she said. “We have, and continue to have, civil rights concerns. We’ll be monitoring and reviewing the results in 1998, 1999 and the year 2000.”

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