|The University of Alabama offers fantastic scholarships to NMS finalists.|
The National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) has confirmed that the national cutoff score for the ‘Commended Student’ designation will be 209 for the class of 2017—or 7 points higher than the cutoff for the class of 2016. While the higher cut score isn’t particularly predictive of state-by-state ‘Semifinalist’ cutoffs (except possibly at the lowest levels), it does reinforce speculation that upward pressure on PSAT/NMSQT® scores may result in higher score requirements for students hoping to earn National Merit Scholarships in many states.
The higher cutoff for students receiving commended status is not too much of a surprise. Since scores from the October PSAT/NMSQT® test were released in January, there’s been much conversation about how much impact higher scores from the “new” PSAT would have on the National Merit Scholarship (NMS) competition.
“Scores for most students are higher on the 2015 PSAT scale than they would have been on the 2014 PSAT scale,” said Bruce Reed, of Compass Education Group. “But at the highest levels, scores are lower—a 240 in 2014 could be no higher than 228 in 2015. This conflicting set of forces is what makes the National Merit scores particularly hard to predict this year.”
And between changes in test scoring eliminating the guessing penalty and changes in the scale (from 20-80 to 160-760), use of data from prior years to predict commended or semifinalist status was difficult.
These changes together with a new computation for the PSAT/NMSQT “Selection Index” (math, writing/language and reading on a scale of 8 to 38 multiplied by two) also put into play the possibility that two students from the same state with identical Total PSAT/NMSQT scores from the October test could have very different outcomes—one commended (or semifinalist) and one not. And not everyone is too happy about that outcome.
According to the NMSC website, of 1.5 million NMS entrants, about 50,000 with the highest SI scores qualify for recognition in the scholarship program. Typically, these high scorers are notified through their schools that they have qualified as either a Commended Student or Semifinalist.
About 34,000 or more than two-thirds of the high scorers receive Letters of Commendation. These students are named on the basis of a “nationally applied” SI score which varies from year-to-year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named semifinalists in their respective states. For the class of 2016, which used the “old” PSAT, the cutoff score was 202. In 2015, it was 201. In 2014, it was 203.
The increase in this year’s cutoff for commended status is in line with generally inflated PSAT scores, which were initially encouraging to students hoping to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Unfortunately, life isn’t always so straightforward and the NMS competition is anything but straightforward. State-by-state semifinalist cutoffs are predictable within a range, but only after the NMSC applies a little politics to its formula and the announcement is made in September will there be any certainty as to who qualifies.
To facilitate the conversation, however, Compass Educational Group has come up with a chart predicting “estimated ranges” for the state-by-state semifinalist cutoff. The ranges “reflect the variability of year-to-year changes within a state” and are based on a model developed by the test wizards at Compass Prep. While interesting, the ranges and “most likely” scores are by no means guaranteed.
"That said, I expect most semi-finalist cutoffs to rise, but the top ones to fall," added Reed. "The highest scores bump into the lower ceiling."
At this point, it’s not worth spending a whole lot of time worrying about PSAT/NMSQT® results. They are predictive of very little beyond possible achievement on the new SAT. Colleges will never see these scores, and how the NMSC determines state-by-state semifinalist cutoffs is entirely out of anyone’s control.