Without Merit

U. of California pulls out of national scholarship program in which PSAT scores alone determine the semifinalists.
July 14, 2005

The people who create standardized tests like the SAT often say that the exams should never be used as the sole measure of whether someone is admitted to a college or awarded a scholarship. Rather, they say, the tests should be used along with grades and other measures to evaluate students.

That argument is now being used against the College Board, and specifically against the National Merit Scholarship Program, which selects semifinalists based on PSAT scores alone. The University of California on Wednesday announced that it would no longer award the scholarships, beginning in the fall of 2006.

Only six of the nine California campuses had been participating in the program. But their joint departure, which was the result of both faculty and administrative panels studying the scholarship program, is a serious blow to the merit scholarships. Critics of the program have said that because black and Hispanic students score lower, on average, on the PSAT than do white or Asian students, restricting finalists to those with high PSAT scores is discriminatory.

In 2004-5, the University of California sponsored the National Merit Scholarships of 600 undergraduates, awarding them a total of about $735,000. Merit scholarships may be sponsored by colleges or by corporations and other entities. University of California students will still be eligible for the scholarships sponsored by others, and may use those funds at the university. The six California campuses that have been in the program -- Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz -- plan to shift the funds that they have been spending on the program to their own merit-based scholarships.

Wednesday's decision followed the advice of the Academic Council, the governing body of faculty members at the university. A background report prepared by the council found that black, Latino  and low-income students are much less likely to receive National Merit Scholarships than are white, Asian and wealthy students.

Among University of California undergraduates, for example, 3.1 percent are black and 13.8 percent are Latino. But only 1 percent of the system's winners of National Merit Scholarships are black and only 2 percent are Latino. Asian and white students received 45.3 and 39.8 percent of the scholarships, respectively, more than their share of the student body.

Similarly, while 18 percent of University of California students come from families with incomes over $120,000, 33.8 percent of the university's National Merit Scholarship winners come from such families.

M.R.C. Greenwood, the university system's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said that the shift away from paying for National Merit Scholarships was "an issue of ensuring that when the university uses its own resources to fund merit-based scholarships, it does so in a manner that is consistent with our own policies and principles with respect to undergraduate admissions."

Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the College Board, which sponsors the PSAT and plays a key role in the National Merit Scholarship Program, said, "We respect the right of the University of California not to fund any scholarships they wish." She added that the College Board hoped to continue conversations with California officials about their concerns over the scholarship program.

Coletti acknowledged that the College Board generally says that its standardized tests should not be used as the sole method of determining anything. But she said that the board does have exceptions when it comes to screening large number of students. In this case, there are too many potential award winners to review individually, she said, and the PSAT scores only qualify someone as a semifinalist, not as a winner. So she said that the use of PSAT scores was not inconsistent with the board's philosophy.

Critics of the College Board praised the California decision. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said, "Simply scoring high on a one-shot exam says very little about the likelihood of college success, especially when some students have the advantage of high-priced test coaching."


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