Sep 10, 2014

National Merit© qualifying scores released for 2014

Under a cloak of secrecy involving sworn promises from school administrators to keep information to themselves, the National Merit© Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) released the national list of state-by-state cut-off scores for merit scholarship semi-finalists yesterday.

And there’s pretty good news in Maryland and Virginia, but not-so-good news in the District of Columbia.

By rolling commuter and boarding students into a competing pool of candidates, the NMSC holds students attending DC high schools to outrageous qualifying standards for college scholarships.

And once again, DC along with New Jersey was assigned the top national merit qualifying cut-off score in the country—224, which is exactly the same as last year and among the highest qualifying scores in competition history.

In contrast, students in West Virginia and North Dakota only needed to score 201 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same prize money and prestige.  In Pennsylvania, they needed 216, while in Michigan, 210 won the prize.  In New York and Texas, 218 was the magic number.

And 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 down two points from last year to 221, and Virginia dropped by three points from 222 to 219. 

The only other states with cut-offs even close to DC’s, were California (222), 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 2013—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—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.

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 multiple sets of registration fees for each finalist.  

And the requirement also can create a problem for students applying to a few colleges not participating in Score Choice and who were perfectly happy to only submit ACT scores to schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, or Stanford.

In an era when more and more schools are adopting test optional policies because they recognized that standardized exams are weak measures of academic talent and the ACT has become the nation's most widely administered admissions exam, a scholarship competition based on test scores from the PSAT and SAT seems like a historical artifact rather than a valid way to identify the top students in the country,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

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 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,” added Schaeffer.  “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.”
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.

"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 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 2014 PSAT/NMSQT®.

For what appears to be a fairly reliable and complete list of state-by-state cut-off scores, check out what the posters on College Confidential have compiled.

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