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The New York State Education Department has violated federal civil-rights laws by awarding scholarships solely on the basis of scores on college-admission tests, four groups charged in federal court last week.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and the National Center for Fair & Open Testing claim that such use of tests discriminates against women, since men consistently outperform women on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing program.

The department annually awards $40 million in scholarships to about 26,000 high-school seniors. Responding to charges of bias, the legislature in 1987 changed the scholarship policy to grant awards on the basis of high-school grades, rather than test scores. As a result, the proportion of women who won scholarships rose substantially in 1988, according to the plaintiffs.

But the revised policy was discontinued, in part because of charges that schools had manipulated grades to secure awards.

Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, said the groups hoped to prod the legislature, which had convened for a special session, into revising the policy again.

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