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Bias against girls said to taint National Merit tests Boys' scores belie grades, critics say


WASHINGTON -- Although studies show girls get better grades in high school and college than boys, only about 35 percent of National Merit Scholarship winners are girls, according to a new report that raises questions about the fairness of the nation's most prestigious scholarship program.

According to FairTest, an organization striving to keep bias out standardized tests, more than 60 percent of semifinalists in the 1993 competition are boys. In none of the 50 states were more girls than boys selected. The results are consistent with the pattern that has emerged over the years, the organization says.

The choice of semifinalists is based entirely on results of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. More than a million juniors nationwide take the PSAT to help them prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which many colleges and universities use in their selection process. More girls than boys take the PSAT test.

The content and form of the test clearly favor boys, and by using the test, National Merit is living in the "Dark Ages," charges Cinthia Schuman, executive director of FairTest, whose organization has worked with the American Association of School Administrators and the National Education Association as well as civil rights groups.

"It is simply unfair for young women to receive a smaller portion of awards when they consistently earn higher grades than young men in both high school and college," she says, arguing that the "inequity is due solely to gender bias in the test used to select eligible students."

"It is an inappropriate test to use to select the nation's most prestigious scholarship because it's not related to what you need to know in college," Ms. Schuman complains.

As a multiple choice test, the PSAT test places a premium on speed and guessing, rather than writing, problem solving and high-order thinking skills, which are more essential for success in college, she says.

But National Merit officials say the gender gap in merit scholarships simply demonstrates that more boys than girls are among the top students nationwide.

"To blame the test for the difference between how boys and girls perform is like blaming a yardstick that boys are taller than girls," says Elaine Detweiler, spokeswoman for the National Merit Scholarship Corp., based in Evanston, Ill.

"We don't really know why girls do worse," she adds. "But we think they should be trying to rectify whatever is causing the difference, rather than blasting the test."

National Merit, which is funded by corporations, colleges and individuals, awards 6,500 scholarships annually, Ms. Detweiler says.

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