National Merit cutoffs should not be based on where students live

September 10, 2018 — by Alex Wang

Every year as the National Merit Semifinalist scores are released, many students narrowly miss out on the recognition and a chance for a scholarship and other benefits. Seniors living in Massachusetts, California, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey — the states with the highest cutoffs — are among the most frustrated about their borderline scores.

The PSAT/NMSQT is a 47-question reading, 44-question writing and language and 48-question math test designed to prepare students for the SAT and act as a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. The English and math subsections each have a score out of 760 for a combined full score of 1,520, and the subscores are then translated to an index out of 228.

This year, the five aforementioned states each had cutoffs of 223, which is around a PSAT score of 1,490. Meanwhile, the states with the lowest cutoffs — Wyoming and West Virginia — had cutoffs of 212, which is around a PSAT score of 1,410. Although this discrepancy may not seem like much, 80 points can mean a difference of 10 questions. In California, even one more question could be the difference between a student’s making the 223 National Merit cutoff or barely missing out with a 222 index score.

Because the cutoffs are calculated based on the top percentage of scorers of each state, wide score gaps of qualifiers exist among many states. This means that some of the high achieving students in Wyoming, for example, could be comparable to mediocre students in California; however, the Wyoming students receive the National Merit honor anyway because of their location. Given this reality, it seems more accurate to call the distinction the State Merit Award.

The National Merit organization claims the scholarships are given out on a merit-based system, but with the differences among states, this is patently false. The discrepancies among states  result in a scholarship based on location — an aspect that students cannot control. If the National Merit program really wants to reward high-achieving students nationally, it should eliminate different cutoffs for each state altogether and instead establish a uniform national metric.

Some may argue that the current state-based cutoffs allow the differences in school systems to be accounted for: Those in less competitive environments have less opportunities to achieve higher scores. While it is true that test prep centers solely designed to increase standardized test scores thrive in states like California, preparation is not necessary to score well on the test. Furthermore, state-based cutoffs also hinder those who still score well in comparison to the rest of the nation, but just fall short in the uber competitive states because they cannot afford to go to a test prep center.

Different cutoffs therefore provide no real benefit and also detract from the goal of rewarding students on merit-based criteria.


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