UC Challenges National Merit

University Testing

A powerful committee of the University of California (UC) faculty is calling on the system’s eight undergraduate institutions to review their policies for giving extra credit in their admissions processes to applicants who scored high in the National Merit Scholarship competition. The initiative provides new fuel for assessment reform activists who have long campaigned to stop misuse of scores from the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) in choosing National Merit semifinalists.


The UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) asked other UC leaders to “reconsider any special recruitment efforts, scholarship programs, or other special benefits campuses may be giving to students who have received special recognition by the National Merit Scholars Program (NMSP). We make this recommendation because of questions and concerns BOARS has identified concerning the soundness and fairness of the NMSP’s selection procedure.”


BOARS cited three major problem areas: the lack of validity evidence for use of the PSAT in identifying “meritorious” students; the misuse of test scores as the sole criterion for determining initial scholarship eligibility; and the “educationally unwarranted negative impact” on underrepresented minorities and low-income students. A letter from BOARS to campus admissions and financial aid committees detailed the flaws in National Merit’s process. “Students who fall but one point below the cut-off score are summarily eliminated from further review. In other words, the answer to a single question (which is well-within the range of psychometric error) can cause students to miss the cut.”


The chair of BOARS, UC Santa Barbara Prof. Michael Brown, explained the committee’s unanimous action: “We are concerned that the definition of merit is just way too narrow and cuts out students in a way that I think everybody would agree is just not fair.” According to Brown, the BOARS proposal is receiving a positive response. For example, UC Davis director of undergraduate admissions Pamela Burnett said, “It doesn’t seem to me that there’s any real reason for us to continue participating” in the NMSP process.


The most recent round of attention to National Merit’s misuse of test scores began last year when outgoing College Board Trustee Patrick Hayashi, the former associate president of the UC system, wrote an eight-page letter to his colleagues outlining his concerns. Hayashi said, “Four years ago, at my first Trustees’ meeting, I asked a simple question: What percent of National Merit Scholars are Black, Hispanic or American Indian? Now four years later, the Board of Trustees still has not been given an answer.” Based on his experience with UC admissions and a review of test score data, Hayashi estimated that the answer was “close to zero and that the absolute number of poor students from these groups is also close to zero.” Though he also demonstrated how the scholarship selection procedure violated the College Board’s own standards for proper test use, the Trustees refused to end their relationship with National Merit. Hayashi then made his letter public.


FairTest has provided research assistance to the UC faculty, drawing on our legal challenge to the PSAT’s sponsors, the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), for illegally assisting in gender discrimination by providing biased scores to National Merit (see Examiner, Winter 1993-94). In response, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights forced changes in the PSAT which somewhat leveled the playing field for women (see Examiner, Fall 1996). Over nearly two decades, FairTest has led a national coalition of civil rights, feminist and education reform groups which has pressed for an overhaul of the National Merit process under the theme “Test scores do not equal ‘Merit’” (see Examiner, Fall 1987 and Summer 1988).