Oct 9, 2011

National Merit Scholarship Corporation® Penalizes DC Public School Students

DC can’t get a break. Not only are residents barred from full Congressional representation, but DC students attending public schools are victims of an arbitrary policy that effectively limits them from fairly competing for one of the most prestigious scholarships in the county.

By rolling commuter and boarding students into the pool of DC merit scholarship candidates, the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) holds students attending District high schools to the highest standards in the country to qualify for college scholarships in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Once again, DC tied with Massachusetts and received a national merit qualifying score of 223—exactly the same last year. Students in North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming only needed to score 204 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.*

Even on either side of the District, the bar wasn’t as high. The qualifying scores for Maryland went up a point from last year to 221, and Virginia increased by two full points to 220.

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, this was October of 2010—a long time ago.

In the spring after the test was taken, 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 date. Students who receive a score of 202 or better 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. As luck would have it, DC’s cutoff is usually the highest in the country. And to add insult to injury, the majority of merit scholarship winners don’t attend public schools or even live in the District. They attend expensive private schools and commute from the suburbs. 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 DC’s allotment of merit scholarship finalists gets consumed by tuition-paying outsiders.

“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,” 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 this week with the administration of the 2011 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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