For Girls, Writing's on the Wall in New PSAT Exam

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A new writing-skills assessment helped narrow the gap between the sexes on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, but boys still outscored girls, according to results released recently by the College Board.

Despite the improvement, critics of the exam are calling for more changes to ensure what they see as a more equal chance for girls in the competition for scholarship money and college admissions. "This is a significant jump compared to every other year, but there is much more to be done," said Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, the Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that brought a federal complaint against the PSAT.

The Preliminary SAT, given to more than 2 million high school juniors and sophomores last fall, was revised under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights to settle FairTest's gender-discrimination complaint. The group asserted that the test does not provide an accurate measure of academic achievement. Although girls generally earn better grades in school, FairTest noted, boys outperform them on the mathematics and verbal portions of the test.

The PSAT is supposed to predict performance on the SAT, the country's leading college-entrance exam. The PSAT is used each year as the sole determinant in awarding 7,400 National Merit scholarships worth a total of $27 million.

The New York City-based College Board, which co-sponsors the test, and the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which created the PSAT and administers and scores it, deny that the test is biased against girls. The settlement, however, speeded up the College Board's plans to add a multiple-choice writing-skills section, which measures a student's ability to identify errors in usage and to select revisions to short passages. The ocr did not come to a conclusion about wrongdoing, but it could demand further changes if the divide is not significantly reduced.

Other Changes Sought

According to the results of the revised exam, girls scored an average 49.8 points--on a scale of 20 to 80--on the writing section, 0.8 points higher than boys. On the verbal portion, girls averaged 48.7 points, compared with 48.9 points for boys. The gap in math scores was wider, with boys scoring an average 50.9 points, compared with 47.6 points for girls.

The difference in the overall scores saw the most significant change. In previous years, the verbal score was doubled and added to the math score for the total. Now, scores on all three sections are given equal weight. The girls' overall score, 146.1, is just 2.7 points lower than the boys'. The previous year's gap was 4.5 points.

FairTest officials say the significant and immediate gain by girls on the revised test shows that similar changes should be made to the SAT, and that other factors, such as grades, should be part of the screening process for National Merit scholarships. "In a perfectly fair world, in which true academic merit were rewarded, girls would get more than half of the scholarships. We're going in the right direction, but this is far too small a step," Mr. Schaeffer said. Girls make up about 56 percent of test-takers, but are awarded about 44 percent of the scholarships.

The College Board is considering adding writing skills to the SAT, too, said Maureen Welsh, its director of school services. Officials are also investigating how to add high school grades as a criterion for the qualifying round for the National Merit competition. But the large number of test-takers may make that task too daunting, Ms. Welsh said.

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