Gender Gap Narrows on Revised PSAT

University Testing

Hundreds more young women each year are likley to receive prestigious National Merit Scholarships because of modest revisions in the test used to select competition semifinalists, according to data released by the exam's producer. The changes in the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) were introduced last fall to settle a federal gender bias complaint brought by FairTest (see Examiner, Summer 1997).


The College Board, which co-sponsors the PSAT/NMSQT, reported that adjusting the content of the exam narrowed the National Merit Selection Score gap between boys and girls by 40 percent. PSAT/NMSQT results are the sole factor used to eliminate more than one million students from the pool eligible to compete for more than $25 million in college tuition aid from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. In past years, higher test scores have resulted in the lion's share of awards going to boys despite the fact that young women earn higher grades in both high school and college when matched for identical course work.


The sole content change on the October 1997 PSAT/NMSQT was the addition of a "Writing Skills" section containing 39 multiple-choice questions. The test still includes two Math and two Verbal sections derived from previously-administered SAT items.


A National Merit Selection Index will be calculated by adding scores from the Math, Verbal and Writing Skills sections. Before this year's test, the selection score was determined by doubling the Verbal score and adding it to Math. Altering the exam and the calculation formula narrowed the average score gap between males and females from 4.5 to 2.7 (see box), a reduction of 40 percent.


Historically, the gender distribution of National Merit Scholarship recipients has paralleled the PSAT/NMSQT gender gap. Only students with the top scores in each state are eligible to move forward in the program.


The revised PSAT/NMSQT was introduced to settle FairTest's civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education charging the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS) with "significantly assisting" gender discrimination by providing PSAT/NMSQT scores for use as the sole factor in selecting National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists (see Examiner, Fall 1996 and Winter 1994-95).


Although millions more in scholarship aid will go to females, young women will still be cheated out of the fair share of awards they have earned by superior academic performance in the classroom. Not only do girls constitute 56% of all National Merit competitors, but they boast higher average high school grades than boys and take as many college-preparatory courses. The problem is continued reliance on a one-shot exam that remains biased.


FairTest has called on the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to enforce a provision of the settlement agreement which requires the test makers to examine selection mechanisms that are not based on exam scores. Girls earn more awards than boys in the nation's other major college aid competition, run by the Citizen Scholarship Foundation of America, which does not make significant use of test scores (see Examiner, Summer 1994).


* data charts showing the relationship between PSAT scores and National Merit Scholarship awards over the past decade are available through the Internet at or by sending a stamped, self-addressed business-sized envelope to "National Merit Charts" at FairTest.