A New Attack on Standardized Tests

U. of California, which helped prompt changes to the SAT, now questions dependence on PSAT in awarding National Merit Scholarships.
March 21, 2005

Four years ago, the University of California's then-president harshly criticized the SAT for "distorting education priorities," and said the institution might stop using it in undergraduate admissions. His call helped prompt the College Board to revamp the SAT, a new version of which debuted this month.

Now, officials at the UC system have a new target: what they perceive to be the National Merit Scholarship Program's overdependence on the the SAT's cousin, the Preliminary SAT. A forthcoming article in National Crosstalk reports that a faculty committee at the university has recommended that the system's campuses stop awarding National Merit Scholarships, and that a longtime UC administrator at is asking the College Board to break its ties to the program.

At the core of the university's objections is the belief that by using students' scores on the PSAT examination as a strict cutoff for whether they qualify as National Merit Semifinalists, the merit scholarship program discriminates against black, Hispanic and American Indian students and students from low-income families who, on average, score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their white, Asian American and more-privileged peers.

"Their way of creating the pool from which the National Merit Scholars will be selected is totally bogus," Patrick Hayashi, who retired last year as associate president of the University California, said in an interview Sunday. "Using the PSAT in a way it's never been validated for and then arbitrarily setting the cutoff score based on nothing but the number of applicants they want is not only fraudulent, but it has a devastating impact on underrepresented students and minorities."

At Hayashi's urging, a subcommittee of the College Board trustees is reviewing the relationship between the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship Program, Crosstalk reports. Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach officials at the College Board for comment on Sunday.

This is not the first time that the University of California has sought to influence the behavior of the College Board and how it or others use its standardized tests. In 2001, a threat by the university's then president, Richard C. Atkinson, that UC campuses might stop using the SAT helped prompt the College Board to revamp the test; the new exam, which features an essay section and is designed to be less "coachable" and therefore more broadly representative of students' academic abilities, debuted this month.

Hayashi, who was a top aide to Atkinson, set the current debate in motion with an eight-page letter to his fellow trustees of the College Board last August, Crosstalk reports. In it, Hayashi, who retired from the board's trustees last fall, said that in the decade he spent as UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, none of the hundreds of National Merit Scholars who attended the university was black or Hispanic, and few were from low-income families. Hayashi noted in the letter that he had been repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to get national data on how many minority and low-income students received National Merit Scholarships.

"I estimate that the percent of National Merit Scholars who are Black, Hispanic and American Indian is close to zero and that the absolute number of poor students from these groups is also close to zero," Hayashi wrote. "If we ever learned the precise figures, then we would be forced to question the wisdom and morality of sponsoring a ‘merit’ scholarship program that effectively locks out Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students." 

In the eyes of Hayashi and of the UC faculty admissions committee that urged the system's eight campuses this month to abandon the National Merit Scholarship Program, the problem is that the program determines the 16,000 National Merit Semifinalists exclusively by whether their PSAT scores surpass a certain threshold, which vary state by state (202 in Arizona and West Virginia to 222 in Massachusetts and Maryland, for instance, according to Crosstalk). Students can qualify to become National Merit Scholars only by taking the PSAT, giving the College Board a major stake in the merit scholars program.

"Students who fall but one point below the cut-off score are summarily eliminated from further review," the UC admissions panel wrote in its letter to the eight campuses. "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 UC admissions panel also said it did not believe that the board had ever proven that it was appropriate to use the PSAT to assess the academic quality of applicants for admission or scholarships.

In his letter last November, Hayashi urged the College Board to end its relationship with the scholars program, saying that its stamp of approval "endorses [the merit scholarship program] and gives it national reach and impact." He added: "Without us, the NMSP would not have nearly the prestige, acceptance, and impact that it does,” according to the Crosstalk article.

College Board officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday. But Wayne Camara, the board's vice president for research and development, told Crosstalk that the process by which the National Merit Scholarship Program and some individual colleges winnow the 16,000 semifinalists down to the 8,200 students who actually receive National Merit Scholarships each year takes factors other than PSAT scores into account. "The practice that National Merit is following is very consistent with the requirement that they use multiple sources of information in making a high-stakes decision," Camara told Crosstalk.

Camara also said in the interview that because the PSAT has been shown to be valid in predicting students' SAT scores, the SAT's validity in predicting student performance extends to the PSAT.

Theodore L. Spencer, dean of admissions at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and head of the College Board subcommittee studying the issue, told Crosstalk that he wasn't in a position to discuss the panel's work but that he didn't have "any concerns" about the National Merit Scholars Program.

The article also cited an e-mail message from November in which another member of the subcommittee, Bruce Walker, who oversees admissions as vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin, said he saw "no reason" to sever the board's ties to the National Merit Scholarship Program. "To do so would be an act of fiscal irresponsibility," he wrote, saying that the funds the scholarship program pays the board to use the PSAT supports programs aimed at underrepresented students.
Though minority students may be underrepresented in the National Merit Scholars Program, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which sponsors it, has taken steps in recent years to bolster the National Achievement Scholarship Program, a much smaller competition for African American students (the corporation awards $2.7 million in funds for the achievement program each year, and $46 million for the merit scholarship program).

Last year, Crosstalk reports, the corporation quietly increased the number of National Achievement scholarships it sponsors from 450 to 700, after colleges stopped sponsoring those awards in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision restricting the use of race in college admissions decisions.

Exactly what happens next is unclear. Officials at several of the University of California’s campuses told Crosstalk that they were likely to accept the systemwide panel’s recommendation and abandon the National Merit Scholarship Program.

"UC over the last four or five years has taken such a strong position and basically led the effort to change the whole SAT test that for us to continue supporting the National Merit Scholarship program, given the way they use the PSAT, I think is a problem," Tom Lifka, assistant vice chancellor for student academic services at UCLA, told Crosstalk.


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