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A fair chance, but no more

The case against the Virginia Military Institute was a triumph for sexual equality, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that state-funded educational institutions could not bar women from their ranks. Lawsuits such as the VMI one, which dismantle special government-sponsored opportunities and privileges for men, have helped to level the playing field.

Unfortunately, for some a level field is not enough. Rather than being content with the intrinsic fairness of equality of opportunity, they seek the rigid orthodoxy of equality of result.

That is the misguided philosophy that prompted a group of lawyers associated with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project to petition the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the National Merit Scholarship competition discriminates against women.

Each year, the National Merit competition selects about 15,000 semifinalists out of the million students who take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, better known as the PSAT. This means that about 985,000 students are eliminated from the scholarship competition based solely on their test scores. The semifinalist pool is usually 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

Scholarships, nearly 6,500 of them, are then awarded from among the semifinalists based upon one's PSAT score and other factors, such as high school record, personal essay and recommendations. The 60-40, male-female ratio is normally maintained in the awarding of scholarships.

The attorneys claim that because 55 percent of those who compete for the scholarships are female, yet only 40 percent of the winners are female, the test and competition are biased. The attorneys allege in their administrative complaint that somehow, although they do not specifically say how, the PSAT, which evaluates objective verbal and mathematical proficiency, discriminates on the basis of sex. And they point to the fact that women generally have higher grades in both high school and college than their male counterparts.

The complaint was filed in 1994, and the attorneys are looking, under the provisions of Title IX, to shut down federal funds to the testing administration. It shouldn't take the government years to throw out this frivolous complaint. Not only is it absurd to argue that the PSAT discriminates against women, such an assertion suggests that girls are not capable of competing equally with boys on such tests _ which is itself a discriminatory notion.

Recent history is replete with examples of testing or qualification procedures that were inherently unfair to women, but the PSAT isn't one of them.

For example, when the Supreme Court struck down the height and weight requirements established by the state of Alabama for prison guards, the court was eliminating a testing paradigm that, although neutral on its face, clearly discriminated against women. Women are not as tall or heavy, on average, as men. Unless there is a direct correlation between those measurements and job performance, the discriminatory test must go.

But that is not the case with the PSAT. The PSAT measures one's facility in reading comprehension, deductive reasoning, basic geometry and algebra. Unless one is willing to concede that women on average are not as able to master these subjects as men (which I am certainly not), the test is not susceptible to the same claims of inherent unfairness.

So why do women do worse on these tests than men, yet consistently earn higher college grades? Jeffrey Penn, a spokesman for the College Board, an organization which co-sponsors the PSAT and SAT tests, points out that the socioeconomic backgrounds of the men and women who takes these tests are markedly different. Women test-takers tend to come from families in lower income brackets _ with income levels of $40,000 or below compared with $70,000 or above for men. Also, there still are lingering differences in the types of high school courses women and men take. Women test-takers tend to study less math and science than men test-takers. These factors account for much of the score differential. The sex-defined taste in curriculum also may explain why women tend to have higher grade averages in high school and college.

But whatever the reason, the response should not be, as one researcher suggested, to correct for the bias in the test "by adding some number of points to women's scores." Howard Wainer and Linda Steinberg, researchers for the Educational Testing Service, also have recommended culling the Merit Scholarship semifinalists down to 15,000 and then awarding scholarships along sex-segregated lists so that half go to females.

Both these suggestions are not only unfair to the men who attained superior scores on the PSAT, but they are outright insulting to women. Such a leg-up approach presumes women simply lack to ability to compete with men on these academically rigorous tests.

The ACLU attorneys fail to point to any specific defect in the current test. Nor do they suggest ways to change the test itself in order to eliminate the gender discrepancy. Instead they focus purely on the result _ that women don't score as highly as men _ and call the test discriminatory.

Don't buy it. A test that discriminates against gender might be one that asks for the winner of the 1969 World Series, not one that asks for the square root of 24,025. If women are ever going to realize the dream of true equality, they must compete with men on the same testing grounds, under the same rules.

When VMI sought to exclude women from its campus, it justified the exclusion by claiming that women couldn't tolerate the school's regimen. The Supreme Court refused to abide such stereotyping, demanding that women who are physically and mentally qualified be given the opportunity to attend the prestigious state-funded institution. The court did not order VMI to lower its recruitment standards in order to admit women, knowing full well such a ruling would undercut claims of equality and condemn female VMI cadets to second-class citizenship.

Similarly, any reduction in the standards women have to meet to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship would only tarnish the prize and cast doubt on the achievement.

Women's opportunities to go head-to-head with their male contemporaries should not be robbed by the well-intentioned. With grit, effort and persistence, women can close that gender gap without resorting to the courts. Hopefully, the Department of Education will agree.

Robyn Blumner is a columnist, lawyer and director of the Florida ACLU. The opinions she expresses are not necessarily those of the American Civil Liberties Union.