The Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test - better known as the PSAT - has always had critics. All standardized tests - including the PSAT's more advanced cousin, the SAT - rankle some people, who maintain such tests are far from the best measure of a student's ability.
But it's the PSAT that's in the news lately. First came a complaint that girls unfairly lose out to boys in the awarding of National Merit Scholarships. Then the College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) agreed to modify the test next year, adding multiple-choice questions on writing - a skill in which girls typically do somewhat better than boys.
It's a move in the right direction. Even the test-givers admit that the PSAT underpredicts female performance. The director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, testified that MIT admits women who have SAT math scores 30 to 50 points below men, but who perform just as well as men in courses that include math.
The move to alter the PSAT is led by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. It said the College Board and ETS discriminate against girls when they provide PSAT scores to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) for use in awarding scholarships.
FairTest says the PSAT problem came to its attention after a reporter noticed merit scholarship semifinalists and finalists in her area were mostly boys. She called local high schools and found that more girls than boys were at the top of their class.
Statistics compiled by FairTest show that this year 56 percent of those who took the PSAT were girls; 44 percent, boys. Of the semifinalists, 39 percent are girls; 55 percent, boys. In 1992, the last year the NMSC released its data, 55 percent of the test-takers were girls; 45 percent, boys. Of those awarded scholarships, 40 percent were girls; 60 percent, boys.
FairTest wants the scholarship competition to be based from the start on high school performance (grades and rank). The argument for the PSAT is efficiency, to initially winnow large numbers of students. But there are other options. The Citizens' Scholarship Foundation for America (sometimes known as Dollars for Scholars), for example, uses test scores as only one of six categories of achievement.
To its credit, the College Board and ETS say they will study, with NMSC, the fairness and feasibility of considering high school academic information in choosing semifinalists. They'll look at such factors as differences in school curricula, course difficulty levels, and grading standards.
Meanwhile, more colleges and universities - about 241 - around the country are no longer considering SAT scores when making admissions decisions. These schools don't think the test is the best predictor of how a student will perform in college. The same holds true for the PSAT. "Merit" should be based on more than a three-hour test - even an improved version.