Sep 12, 2015

National Merit® Scholarship Corporation announces 2016 semifinalist results

Under the usual cloak of secrecy involving promises to keep information private, the National Merit© Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) released the list of state-by-state cut-off scores for merit scholarship semifinalists earlier this week.

And the District of Columbia once again holds the dubious honor of requiring the highest score in the nation, 225, for students to qualify as National Merit Semifinalists.  This is a distinction shared only by New Jersey and the “International” subset of students competing for the prize.

And if you’re wondering how it is that DC students could be held to such a high bar, join the club.  Evidently, the NMSC methodology rolls commuter and boarding students into the DC pool of competing candidates instead of assigning them to their home states.  This results in an imbalance within the competition that the NMSC has refused to correct despite complaints going back many many years.

And the great divide between high priced private schools and the DC Public Schools is only getting bigger. This year, the District’s cut-off score jumped up a point from 224 last year, making it nearly impossible for all but the highest achieving students to have a chance at National Merit scholarships.

In contrast, students in West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota only needed to score 202 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same money and prestige. In Arkansas and Montana students with scores of 204 or better will go on to compete as semifinalists.  But for Pennsylvania, they needed 217, while in Michigan, 210 won the prize.  In New York and Washington State, 219 was the magic number; and in North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, or Arizona, 215 was the cut-off.

On either side of the Potomac, the bar wasn’t as high that faced by DC Public Schools (DCPS) students. The qualifying score for Maryland went up one point from last year to 222, and Virginia went up by three points from 219 to 222—the same as for the high school class of 2014. 

The only other states with cut-offs even close to DC’s were California (223), Connecticut (220), and Massachusetts (223).

Students may only qualify as “merit scholars” by taking the College Board’s PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of their junior year. For this year’s group of merit scholarship candidates, the test was in October of 2014—a long time ago.

In recent years, high scorers have been notified whether they qualify for the next level of competition in September of senior year—almost twelve full months after the initial test date.

Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90 percent of this group traditionally earns finalist status.  If they have already taken the SAT or are willing to take the SAT some time before the end of the year to “confirm” their PSAT scores, they will compete for some 7,400 scholarships worth more than $32 million.

For the record, ACT scores can neither qualify a student for nor be used to support the PSAT scores used to determine initial eligibility.  This ensures the College Board will receive multiple sets of registration fees for each finalist. 

And the requirement also may create problems for students applying to a few colleges not participating in Score Choice and who were perfectly happy to submit only ACT scores to schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, or Stanford, but will have to add SAT results if they take those tests.

The mysterious NMSC formula for anointing finalists credits a student by the location of their high school and not by the location of their home. So the District’s allotment of merit scholarship finalists gets largely consumed by tuition-paying outsiders or wealthy students who attend high school with the President’s daughters.

Since college admissions test results are strongly correlated with family income, using PSAT scores as the sole qualifying factor in the National Merit competition guarantees that the lion's share of scholarships are awarded to families in least need of tuition aid,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “In the District of Columbia, the very high cut-off score means that many Semifinalists attend high-priced private day schools, such as Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters are enrolled. Very few come from DC public schools, which largely serve low-income, African American and Latino students.”

So far, executives from the NMSC have brushed off calls to rethink the qualifying process. In letters to both the College Board and the NMSC, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) advised that eliminating 99 percent of test-takers from the National Merit Scholarship competition solely on the basis of a single standardized exam was “at odds with best practices in the use of admissions test scores.”
And the problems go beyond simple misuse of the test.  Preparing for National Merit has evolved into a cottage industry for test prep companies seeing an opening in the market to expand business by offering targeted classes for the PSAT/NMSQT.  This year, a wrench was thrown into the works by the announcement of a redesigned PSAT (rPSAT), which sent test prep tutors into a frenzy of trying to second-guess what will be on the new test based on the limited information being released by the College Board.

As a result of these concerns, a number of colleges withdrew support for the National Merit Scholarship program. Notably, the entire University of California system and the University of Texas no longer offer scholarships specifically for national merit scholars.

And yet, the process remains unchanged as students in area high schools, including those in District of Columbia, start the first step of the competition in a few weeks with the administration of the 2015 rPSAT/NMSQT®.

Beyond the obvious fairness issues, this misuse of the PSAT should stop because test scores do not measure academic 'merit.' That is the reason why more than 850 colleges and universities across the U.S. now have test-optional admissions for all or many applicants,” added Schaeffer.

For what appears to be a fairly reliable and complete list of state-by-state cut-off scores, check out the list published by College Planning Simplified.  For state winners, check with local media such as the interactive New York list developed by or releases from individual school districts.

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