National Merit Gender Gap Will Narrow

University Testing

Females in the high school class of 2007 are likely to win the greatest percentage of prestigious National Merit Scholarships in history, due to a narrowing of the gender gap in the program's qualifying exam forced by FairTest legal action. But the competition remains biased in favor of males due to its reliance on a standardized test that has been proven to underpredict the academic performance of young women.


The difference in average scores between males and females on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) for this year's seniors fell to 1.1 point on the 60-240 point scale, the lowest ever. Before a multiple-choice "Writing" section was added to the exam to settle a FairTest gender bias complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (see Examiner, October 1996), males averaged more than six points higher. Now, better females scores on the "Writing" and "Critical Reading" sections largely offset the male advantage on "Math"


Secret PSAT/NMSQT cut-off scores, which vary from state to state, are used to eliminate about 99% of competitors from scholarship eligibility. Students who do not score in the top 1% and become Semifinalists cannot receive National Merit awards no matter how strong their other academic credentials might be.


According to research conducted by the College Board and Educational Testing Service, young women outperform their male counterparts in both high school and college. In the high school class of 2006, the average female grade point average was 3.40; for males it was 3.24. Females and males averaged the same number of math courses and posted identical grades. About 54.5% of entrants in the National Merit Scholarship competition are female.


This misuse of the PSAT/NMSQT to deny award eligibility to thousands of otherwise well-qualified students from all demographic groups continues to demonstrate that "test scores do not measure 'merit.'"