Judge Finds Bias In Scholarships Based on Scores

By Mark Walsh — February 15, 1989 5 min read

A federal judge’s ruling that the awarding of New York State scholarships based on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores discriminates against female students could lead to other legal challenges to the test, some experts predicted last week.

Judge John M. Walker ruled Feb. 3 that New York’s use of the sat as the sole criterion for awarding its Regents and Empire State Scholarships discriminated against females because they traditionally score lower than males on the standardized college-admission test.

Longtime critics who claim that the test is inherently biased against women and minorities hailed the judge’s opinion as a landmark ruling that would open the door to challenges to other current uses of the test.

“The case is the first challenging any standardized test based on gender discrimination,” said Isabelle Katz Pinzler, director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and the lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

The suit was brought against the New York Department of Education by 10 female students and two organizations, the Girls Clubs of America and the National Organization for Women.

“This all helps build the momentum to have the tests overhauled or totally discarded,” said Robert A. Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the chief critic of the sat

But the College Board, the organization that oversees the admissions test, and the Educational Testing Service, the organization that develops and administers it, said the judge’s ruling was limited in scope.

“By this order, the judge is clearly not taking any kind of anti-sat stand, but has taken the same position that ets and the College Board have taken on the proper use of sat scores in combination with other information about students,” said Janice Gams, a spokesman for the College Board.

Not ‘Achievement’ Test

Judge Walker’s ruling does not in fact term the test itself biased; it even suggests that the state continue to use it in combination with grade-point averages to determine the awards.

The ruling notes, however, that the Empire and Regents scholarship programs were designed to reward academic achievement in high school and that the sat is not designed to test achievement but to predict college performance.

“This court concludes that sat scores capture a student’s academic achievement no more than a student’s yearbook photograph captures the full range of her experiences in high school,” Judge Walker wrote. “The evidence is clear that females score significantly below males on the sat while they perform equally or slightly better in high school. Therefore, the [State Education Department’s] use of the sat as the sole criterion for awarding Regents and Empire scholarships discriminates against females” and thus denies them the equal protection of the laws required by the 14th Amendment.

26,000 Awards Made

The state awards about 26,000 Empire and Regents scholarships each year. The Empire Scholarships are worth up to $10,000 over four years, while the Regents Scholarships are worth up to $1,250 over five years.

State officials formerly relied on a state achievement test to determine the winners, but in 1977 switched to the sat as a cost-cutting measure.

The judge noted that males have outscored females on the verbal portion of the sat by an average of 10 points since 1981, and that they have outscored females on the math portion by an average of 40 points since 1967.

Because of the state’s reliance on sat scores, males have received more scholarships than females. In 1987, males made up 47 percent of all competitors for the scholarships, but received 72 percent of the Empire scholarships and 57 percent of the Regents awards.

Two years ago, after critics noted the disparity, the state went to a system of using sat scores and grade-point averages to determine the awards. Mean grade-point averages were 85 (out of 100) for females and 84.4 for males, leading to a significant increase in female scholarship winners.

But the mixed method of determining winners was abandoned last year when several schools were accused of inflating grades to receive more scholarships.

Must Recalculate

In his ruling, Judge Walker ordered the state to find another way to award the scholarships, suggesting a return to the use of grade-point averages and the sat for this year and the possibility of a statewide achievement test in the future. The judge noted that all other states offering merit scholarships, with the exception of Massachusetts, had been able to develop a suitable system of determining4award winners using grade-point averages.

Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the New York education department, said the state was about to announce the scholarship winners when the ruling came, and must now go back and calculate the awards based on grade-point averages as well as sat scores.

Meanwhile, the state last week was still considering whether to appeal the decision, even though Gov. Mario Cuomo was quoted as saying he thought the tests were biased.

Mr. Carpenter said the state commissioner of education, Thomas Sobol, “doesn’t want to defend the proposition of using the sat alone for awarding the scholarships.” But the state may have other legal interests at stake, since the implications of Judge Walker’s ruling for other discrimination issues is not clear.

‘Should Have Been Clearer’

Stanford von Mayrhauser, general counsel of the Educational Testing Service, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case along with the College Board, said Judge Walker’s ruling was open to interpretation.

“We vigorously dispute the notion that the judge ruled the sat is biased,” Mr. von Mayrhauser said. “The judge, unfortunately, could have been and should have been clearer on that point.”

Mr. Schaeffer of FairTest, however, predicted that the ruling would lead to other challenges of standardized testing, such as the National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s use of the pre-sat to determine the pool of competitors for its awards. He also pointed to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s use of the sat and the American College Test in its Proposition 42, a rule curbing awards of athletic scholarships to student-athletes who fail to meet minimum academic standards.

“They all face the risk of serious legal action unless they overhaul” such programs, Mr. Schaeffer said.

Nationally, males last year outscored females by an average of 435 to 422 (out of 800) on the verbal portion of the sat, and 498 to 455 on the math portion.

Nancy W. Burton, program director for the sat at the Educational Testing Service, said females who take the sat tend to come from less privileged backgrounds than males who take the test, and are more likely to be members of minority groups. This accounts for virtually all the difference in the verbal scores and about half the difference in the math scores, she said.

The rest of the difference in math scores can partly be attributed, she said, to the fact that girls take fewer math and science courses than boys.