Oct 8, 2010

DC Students Need Highest Scores in the Country to Qualify for National Merit® Scholarships

As DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee struggles to improve test scores and reward outstanding classroom performance, the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) deals another discouraging blow to DC students. Once again, students attending District high schools are being held to the highest standard in the country to qualify for college scholarships as semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Tied only with Massachusetts, DC received a national merit qualifying score of 223—two points higher than last year. Students in Arkansas, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming only needed to score 202 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same prize money and prestige, according to an unofficial list published by Barbara Aronson on her College Planning Simplified website.*

Closer to home, school systems adjoining DC also had lower qualifying scores. Maryland dropped a point from last year to 220, and Virginia remained even at 218.

Students may only qualify as “merit scholars” by taking the College Board’s PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of their junior year. In the spring after the test, 50,000 high scorers are contacted for program recognition as commended or semifinalist based on a selectivity index generated by a combination of math, critical reading, and writing scores.

High scorers are notified whether they qualify for the next level of competition in September of senior year—twelve full months after the initial test was taken. Students who receive a score below the semifinalist cutoff specific to their state will be “commended.” Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students according to the NMSC—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90 percent of this group eventually earns finalist status.

But each state has a different cutoff. And as luck would have it, DC’s cutoff is usually the highest in the country.

“The very high PSAT/NMSQT National Merit Semifinalist eligibility cut-off score for DC reflects the large number of children from the nation's most privileged elites enrolled in the District's private day schools, such as Sidwell Friends, which President Obama's daughters attend,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “It is highly likely that few, if any, Semifinalists, are from DC's open-enrollment public schools, particularly those which serve the greatest percentages of low-income and minority 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.” NACAC’s Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions concluded that “the time has come to end the practice of using ‘cutscores,’ or minimum admission test scores, for merit aid eligibility.”

As a result of these concerns, a number of colleges withdrew their 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 next week with the administration of the 2010 PSAT/NMSQT®.

Schaeffer sadly concludes, “Because of its misuse of test scores—which correlate very strongly with family wealth and income—as the sole criterion for Semifinalist status, the National Merit selection process guarantees that a lion's share of its awards go to the children who least need financial assistance to attend college.”

There’s definitely something wrong with this picture.

*Note: The National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not officially release a complete list of qualifying scores for reasons known only to them.

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