Florida Scholarship Bias Challenged

University Testing

Civil rights and education advocacy groups from Florida and around the nation have called on state leaders to address racial bias in the formula used to award state-funded Bright Futures scholarships.


A letter delivered to top state officials in December charged that “rigid test score cut-offs” on the SAT and ACT result in “[d]isproportionately few African American and Latino high school graduates” winning a Bright Futures scholarship for the 1999-2000 school year. Bright Futures Academic Scholars receive free tuition at any Florida public university, while the program’s Merit Scholarships cover three-quarters of tuition. Equivalent funding is available for students attending private universities.


To qualify for the top scholarships, students must score at least 1270 on the SAT or 28 on the ACT. African American students received only 3% of all Academic Scholars awards even though they comprised more than 14% of all test-takers. Latinos, who made up almost 14% of test-takers, won less than 9% of the full tuition scholarships. More than three-quarters of the Academic Scholars awards went to the 53% of test-takers who are white.


For the Merit Scholarships, with cut-off scores of 920 on the SAT and 20 on the ACT, 8% of winners were African American, 12% were Latinos, and 72% were white.


The letter, initiated by FairTest, was signed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Florida State Conference of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Branches, Pinellas County Urban League, Jacksonville Urban League, ASPIRA Florida, and the Florida School Counselor Association. The groups charged that the Bright Futures award formula violates the guidelines of the SAT’s sponsor, the College Board, which state, “The following are examples of test uses that should be avoided . . . Using minimum test scores without proper validation on the basis of students’ performance within the institution, and if appropriate by specific programs or by student subgroups.”


Reliance on SAT and ACT score cut-offs to determine eligibility is a major reason why this unfair disparity occurs. Instead of misusing test scores, the letter suggested Florida utilize alternative criteria such as teacher recommendations, school activities and honors, work experience and community service to select award winners.


The group’s letter concluded, “A first step in correcting this disparity is to eliminate test score requirements for the Bright Futures scholarship program.” The letter was delivered to Governor Jeb Bush, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, members of the Florida Board of Education, state legislative leaders, and members of the Senate Education Committee and House Committee on Colleges and Universities. While the Governor’s office responded by defending the Bright Futures scholarship criteria, several members of the state legislature have expressed an interest in re-examining the program’s qualifications.


Other scholarship programs that employ SAT and/or ACT score minimums for receipt of state-funded college financial aid include South Carolina’s Palmetto Fellows award, Mississippi’s Eminent Scholars program, Louisiana’s TOPS scholarship, and Missouri’s Bright Flight grant (see Examiner, Fall 2001).