Oct 13, 2010

How the National Merit® Scholarship Competition Unfairly Benefits a Few

If you happen to reside in a school district with special permission from the College Board, you won’t have to get up early on Saturday morning to take the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify as a competitor for a National Merit® scholarship. Because your superintendent knows how much the program is worth in terms of prestige and real estate values, you will have the test administered this morning as part of an ordinary school day.

And if you’re really lucky, your school or school system will be paying all or part of the fees associated with the test.

The Wednesday test administration is an expensive luxury for a select group of students in districts wealthy enough to afford the costs associated with giving up one full day of school in favor of supporting a competition that pays off handsomely in other ways. Not only does the PSAT/NMSQT take away from instructional time, but teachers, counselors, and administrators are pressed into service as test proctors and facilitators.

At a recent training program sponsored by the College Board for counselors in Fairfax County, discussion focused on the wide variation in PSAT/NMSQT policies and pricing. The County receives a very generous discount from the College Board to subsidize test administration to 10th graders, which not only introduces students to the College Board “product” but also allows them a great opportunity to practice for the single test that will qualify them for a merit scholarship.

From there, schools vary in terms of support for the test with some PTSA’s or individual school budgets supporting all or part of the test fees for 11th graders, for whom the test matters as a qualifier for college scholarships awarded a year later. Some charge a token amount and others charge full freight plus a small administrative fee.

And some Fairfax schools administer the test to 9th graders, affording yet another opportunity for practice. By the time they reach junior year, these students will have had two practice PSAT/NMSQT opportunities and ample time to obtain PSAT test “diagnosis” based on scores as well as tutoring from an expensive test-prep company to help them prepare for the real thing.

Counselors in other parts of the country have noticed the disparity in how the competition is administered and funds are awarded. Many come from states where the ACT is more the norm for college standardized testing.

While these school systems often give the PSAT in the 10th grade (remember the discount), it takes a well-counseled and supported student to know the importance of taking the test in the 11th grade to compete for scholarships. And the fees are not always covered.

“…we advertised and encouraged all college-bound juniors to take the PSAT which they would have to pay for unless they qualified through the College Board fee waiver program,” said one former guidance counselor in a midwestern “ACT” state. Because fee waivers are only available for 11th grade students, those taking the test for “practice” in the 9th or 10th grades pay whatever the school or school system is charging.

Another midwestern counselor reports, “The schools in [school district] will not pay for it, but parents in our community generally are able to pay….For the 11th grade testing, we recommend juniors take it, but single out those who we believe have a good shot for the [national merit] money and contact them personally to recommend prep.” She adds, “In some systems…the counselors will not let weaker students take the PSAT.”

In fact, students from rural districts often have to drive long distances to find Saturday test sites. And the tests frequently conflict with athletic events or employment obligations, further disadvantaging students who don’t have the opportunity to take the PSAT/NMSQT during school time in the comfort of their home classrooms.

While the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) severely criticized the National Merit Scholarship Corporation for basing scholarship awards on single “cutscores” that vary from state to state, the program actually suffers from an even more fundamental fairness problem based on how the test is administered, by whom, and at what price.

And in the end, the test rewards those who are in least need of scholarship money—those who have practiced, prepped, and had the opportunity to compete in an arena subsidized by their school district.

If you’re a high school junior residing in Fairfax County, Virginia, good luck with the PSAT/NMSQT. Your school district has a lot riding on your performance.

1 comment:

  1. I really had to laugh a little at the end there; I'm a student of Fairfax county and I recently got a 217...this score would have easily been enough in other states, but I'm nervous about whether or not I'll get into the National Merit Scholarship program...