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Group Says SAT Biased

Charges Women Lose Money, Opportunities

By Sewell Chan

Thousands of high-school students across the U.S. will take the Scholastic Assessment Test this morning, but a feminist research group is charging that the exam is consistently biased against women.

The Center for Women Policy Studies, based in Washington, called on the College Board Thursday to remove what it called systematic bias in the exam.

"When it comes to fairness, the SAT deserves an 'F,'" the center's president, Leslie R. Wolfe, said. "The SAT is unfair to young women, unfair to parents and unfair to colleges."

According to the College Board, which administers the test, in 1996 the average young woman's score was 503 for the test's verbal section, and 492 for math. Young men on average scored 507 and 527, respectively, out of a possible 800 on each part.

The center said that the SAT consistently underpredicts women's grades in their first year in college. Although young women earn higher grades for the same high-school courses and comprise 56 percent of students who take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT), they only make up 40 percent of all National Merit Scholars, the center said.

Officials at the center called on the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., company that designs the tests for the College Board, to eliminate questions that the center says are biased against young women.

Phyllis Rosser, author of a 1989 book titled The SAT Gender Gap, said girls tend to perform better on algebra and computation questions while boys score higher on spatial reasoning and word problems.

The center charged that the test's bias hurts young women's chances to go to college and limits their career options and earning power after graduation.

"In 1997, the biased PSAT and SAT will deprive young women of more than 1,000 scholarships totaling more than $2 million," the group said in a news release.

The College Board was quick to defend the SAT as an fair measure of reasoning skills acquired over the course of students' high school careers.

Board officials accused the center of blaming the messenger rather than the message.

"We think a better thing for them to concentrate on would be to address the wider cultural situations which have women taking less rigorous courses than men throughout their school career," College Board spokesperson Jeffrey Penn said yesterday. "It's very easy to criticize the instrument that reflects the inequity rather than addressing the inequity in the broader society."

As for the charge that women have different skills that are not rewarded on the test, Penn said: "Is the solution to drop geometry or to say, 'We need to encourage women to take geometry?' You don't burn down a house to get rid of rats."

Penn said that the College Board uses panels of educators of both genders and many different backgrounds to review the test, and that all questions are pre-tested by students.

Penn said that certain demographic groups tend to score lower because "the test reflects the kinds of opportunities people have." He said good predictors of a student's SAT score include such variables as parents' educational background, family income and geographic location. Poorer students and students from rural and inner-city backgrounds tend to score worse, he noted.

Penn said that "there are more rigorous efforts now than there were 30 or 40 years ago" to prevent bias in the test.

Nationwide scores on the SAT, which is taken by 41 percent of all high-school seniors, have been dropping since the 1950s, although the decline has leveled off since the early 1990s. The gap between young women's and men's scores has narrowed over the last several decades, Penn said.

The Center for Women Policy Studies announced Thursday a national public education and advocacy campaign, including a toll-free information number--(888) SAT-BIAS--and efforts to lobby legislators and promote research to advance equity in testing.

Although admits to Harvard typically score above 1,400 on the SAT, it is unclear whether the gap between girls' and boys' scores is narrower than the national gap. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 did not return a phone call seeking comment late yesterday

Although admits to Harvard typically score above 1,400 on the SAT, it is unclear whether the gap between girls' and boys' scores is narrower than the national gap. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 did not return a phone call seeking comment late yesterday

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