Sep 11, 2013

DC's National Merit® Scholarship Qualifying Score is the Highest in the Nation

Once again, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) can’t cut a break with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

In a bizarre twist of standards, DCPS students 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.

And once again, DC along with Massachusetts and New Jersey was assigned the highest national merit qualifying score in the country—224, which is three points higher than last year and among the highest qualifying scores in competition history.

Students in West Virginia and Wyoming only needed to score 203 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same prize money and prestige.  In North Dakota, they needed 204 and in Arkansas, 205 won the prize.  And in Montana and Mississippi, 207 was the magic number.

Even on either side of the District, the bar wasn’t as high. The qualifying score for Maryland went up four points from last year to 223, and Virginia increased by five full points to 222.  The only other states with comparable cutoffs were California (223) and Connecticut (221)—a complete list of scores may be found here.

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 2012—a long time ago.

Traditionally, 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. Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students this year—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90 percent of this group eventually 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.

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

And for the record, each state has a different cutoff. As luck would have it, DC’s cutoff is usually the highest in the country. To add insult to injury, most 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 largely consumed by tuition-paying outsiders or students who attend high school with the President’s daughter.

"Because of its misuse of PSAT scores—which correlate very strongly with household income—as the sole criterion to select Semifinalists, National Merit guarantees that its awards will predominantly go to children who least need scholarship assistance to attend college,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “In DC, this means that nearly all winners attend private high school.”

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.”

And the problems go beyond simple misuse of the test.  Preparing for National Merit has evolved into a cottage industry for test prep companies that saw an opening in the market to expand business by offering targeted classes for the PSAT/NMSQT.

”Low-income, African American and Latino public school students are further disadvantaged by this biased system, since their parents cannot afford high-priced test-prep courses which further boost scores," concluded Schaeffer.

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 in a few weeks with the administration of the 2013 PSAT/NMSQT®.

There’s definitely something wrong with this picture.

For a complete list of National Merit cutoff scores, visit the FairTest website.

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