PSAT Revisions Further Narrow Gender Gap

University Testing

Recently released statistics from the sponsors of the Preliminary SAT, the College Board and Educational Testing Service, demonstrate that changes made to that exam in order to settle a FairTest gender bias civil rights complaint (Examiner, Fall 1996) have substantially reduced the score disparity between male and female test takers. A multiple-choice "Writing Skills" section was added to the test beginning with the class of 1999.


Due to this simple adjustment, the gender gap shrunk by 40% in the first year of revised test administration. According to the new data, it narrowed by another 26% for the class of 2000. Thus, in just two years the PSAT gender gap has been cut by much more than half.


Since PSAT scores are the sole criterion to determine National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist status and eligibility for more than $35 million in college tuition aid, this means that many more females will receive these valuable and prestigious awards (Examiner, Spring 1999). 


Though fairer, the National Merit competition is still biased against females, who earn higher grades than their male counterparts in both high school and college when matched for identical courses, because of its reliance on test scores. The failure to make similar changes in the SAT means that exam remains even more discriminatory. It will be interesting to note the contrast in the magnitude of the gender gap between the revised PSAT and the unchanged SAT when College Bound Seniors SAT scores for the class of 1999 are released late this summer.


A new journal article sheds more light on the causes of the persistent gender gaps on tests such as the PSAT, SAT and Graduate Record Exam. Writing in the July issue of Contemporary Educational Psychology, University of Massachusetts Prof. James Royer argues that males score higher because they have committed more basic math facts to memory. Thus, they are able to respond more quickly to fast-paced, multiple-choice problems, giving them a distinct edge on speeded exams. In classroom situations, however, this advantage disappears.