College bound students receive new state scholarships

ACLU suing over criteria for "Merit Award" program

Nearly 30,000 Michigan students will receive publicly funded vouchers to use for college expenses this year. But court challenges and controversy may place the future of the scholarship program in jeopardy.

This year marks the beginning of the Michigan Merit Award program. High school seniors who met eligibility requirements based on Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores will receive a $1,000 to $2,500 scholarship from the state to apply toward college or technical training. This year, approximately 40,000 Michigan seniors were eligible to receive awards for this fall.

Michigan Treasurer Mark Murray told The Detroit News, "These awards will be put to good use this fall as thousands of qualifying students begin the next phase of their education."

The Merit Award program is administered by the state Department of Treasury and is funded through the $8.5-billion national tobacco industry settlement slated for Michigan.

Students who take MEAP tests and meet or exceed Michigan's standard scores in one of four subject areas (math, reading, science, and writing) qualify to receive the merit scholarships in grades 7, 8, and 11. Students can also qualify by passing two of the MEAP subject areas and placing in the 75th percentile or above on the ACT or SAT or by obtaining a qualifying score on the ACT Work Keys job-skills assessment. Eligible students must be planning to go on with some form of postsecondary education and not have been convicted of a felony.

Scholarships worth $2,500 are provided for students who plan to attend a college or job-training program in Michigan, while students who choose to attend an out-of-state institution receive $1,000. The scholarships may be used for any college-related expenses, from tuition to day care.

The Merit Award program is not without its critics, however.

Some are questioning the validity of MEAP testing as a measure of academic achievement. Others are challenging the fairness of scholarship distribution.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the program, claiming it is biased against minorities and poor students who tend to fare poorly on MEAP tests. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, seeks an injunction ordering the state to expand the criteria for scholarships.

The lawsuit came on the heels of an announcement showing that Michigan's most affluent school districts collected the largest share of Merit Award scholarships. The ACLU charges that the program subsidizes students who already can afford college and leaves needy students behind. Responses from government officials have stressed that the program is meant to be merit-based; all students take the same tests and are held to uniform standards. Supporters of the plan have also suggested there are many scholarships already established to serve needy and minority students.

Controversy also surrounds the MEAP itself. In Michigan as well as other states, doubts about standardized testing are being raised.

One criticism is that standardized testing leads to standardized teaching, otherwise known as "teaching to the test." Superintendent Ryan Donlan of Bay-Arenac Community High School explains. "Nothing on the tests is bad, per se. But, it is unethical and abhorrent for teachers to simply teach to the test," he says. "Success in four or five academic areas on a test does not assure the student is a well-rounded person.

"True success must be measured by taking into account transferable employability skills, like problem solving, teambuilding, and punctuality," he adds.

The ACLU lawsuit will have no effect on this year's Merit Award recipients, but could curtail or expand the awards for students in the 2000-2001 school year.

More information on the Merit Award program can be found at www.meritaward.state.mi.us.