Apples and Oranges: Problems with the PSAT and National Merit program

“To qualify for a national merit scholarship, students in different states have to take the same exam, but they don’t have to get the same scores to win.”–Valerie Strauss

We know that it is impossible to compare schools and students in different states based on the results on state tests. For example, the highest performing district in one state had 67% of its student score at “proficient” or above, while one of the schools in another state identified for SIG funds as a “low-performing” school had 82% of its students score at “proficient” or above in reading. In another example, one of the lowest performing high schools in one state, would be among the top performing high schools in ten states.

Now we learn that we also cannot compare National Merit Scholars in different states.

Here are the highlights of Valerie Strauss’ piece in the Washington Post, which I have filtered for review by busy school leaders:

3.5 million high school students take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) as a preparation for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

In addition to serving as a practice test and indicator of college readiness, the PSAT is also used as the qualifier for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

“About 50,000 students qualify based on their PSAT scores, and that number is whittled down to about 16,000, who become semifinalists (the 34,000 others get letters of commendation). About 8,500 are named finalists, eligible for a scholarship of varying amounts, based on test scores as well as other criteria including academic performance.”

However, “the initial cutoff scores separating the possible winners from the definite losers are not the same in each state.”

“Students can wind up winning with lower scores than students who didn’t make the cut in their state.” For this reason, the University of California system decided to stop funding National Merit Scholarships in favor of other “merit-based” scholarships.

States With Highest Cut Scores: D.C. New Jersey, and Massachusetts

States With Lowest Cut Scores: North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming

National Merit Scholars can live in one state, but go to school in another. The state where the school is located gets the credit. For example, “National Merit winners in the past who have been listed as coming from Washington D.C. go to private schools in the city, but live in Maryland or Virginia.”

Cutoff Scores by State

“An unofficial list of cut scores for the class of 2012 assembled by the Web site College Planning Simplified, which provides free college planning advice, shows these.”

Alabama 211

Alaska 212

Arizona 213

Arkansas 205

California 221

Colorado 215

Connecticut 220

Delaware 217

District of Columbia 223

Florida 214

Georgia 218

Hawaii 216

Idaho 211

Illinois 216

Indiana 214

Iowa 210

Kansas 214

Kentucky 212

Louisiana 209

Maine 212

Maryland 221

Massachusetts 223

Michigan 210

Minnesota 215

Mississippi 205

Missouri 213

Montana 209

Nebraska 209

Nevada 209

New Hampshire 216

New Jersey 223

New Mexico 210

New York 219

North Carolina 217

North Dakota 204

Ohio 214

Oklahoma 209

Oregon 216

Pennsylvania 215

Rhode Island 213

South Carolina 211

South Dakota 206

Tennessee 214

Texas 219

Utah 208

Vermont 217

Virginia 220

Washington 220

West Virginia 204

Wisconsin 209

Wyoming 204

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