National Merit Awards Again Biased Toward Boys

University Testing

As the National Merit Scholarship Corporation announces its winners from the 1995 high school graduating class, a state-by-state survey has found that a substantial majority of the awards will go to males, despite the fact that young women earn better grades in both high school and college when taking identical courses.


An analysis of the names of nearly 15,600 National Merit Semifinalists reveals that only 42% of those still eligible for this year's awards are female, even though 56% of scholarship competitors were female. National Merit Semifinalists are selected solely on the basis of scores on the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT). In past years the gender ratio of scholarship winners has been nearly identical to that of the semifinalist pool.


Once again, young women are losing out on their fair share of more than $25,000,000 in prestigious awards solely due to use of a biased test. If the awards were divided according to classroom performance, young women would receive about $3 million more each year.


According to FairTest's detailed count, 53.4% of the 15,589 Semifinalists in the 1995 National Merit competition are boys and 42.3% are girls. The gender of 4.3% could not be determined from the students' names. Since FairTest began examining National Merit reports a decade ago, females have always received considerably fewer than half the annual awards.


The new data strongly support FairTest's civil rights case, filed last year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), charging the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Entrance Examination Board (College Board) with gender discrimination for their role in the National Merit Scholarship competition. The two firms, which design and administer the PSAT, could lose their federal grants and contracts if they are found to have assisted in discrimination. The case is currently under active investigation by the OCR regional office in New York City.


The test-makers' own research clearly shows that year after year the PSAT discriminates against young women. A joint ETS-College Board report issued late last year focused particularly on the math part of the exam, concluding that it "underpredicted the academic achievement of female students in mathematics and in the broad spectrum of courses taken by science and non-science majors" (see Examiner, Winter 1994-95).


Other recent ETS and College Board studies, including an article in the Harvard Educational Review, report that the firms' multiple-choice exams, such as the PSAT, consistently underestimate the abilities of females when compared to other forms of assessment (see Examiner, Summer 1993). The test-makers also acknowledge that females earn higher grades than males in both high school and college when matched for identical coursework.


The National Merit Scholarship Corporation refuses to make public any information about the ethnicity of winners, even though that data is collected on PSAT registration forms. Based on published group test score averages, it is unlikely that a significant percentage of Semifinalists or award recipients are Black, Hispanic, Native American, or recent Asian immigrants.


For a state-by-state breakdown of male and female 1994-95 Semifinalists, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to National Merit at FairTest.