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Posted at 2:28 PM ET, 02/ 8/2010

Any merit to National Merit program?

By Valerie Strauss

I have long wondered why the National Merit scholarship program had so much cache, given the criteria necessary for winning.

The program is a competition in which kids become eligible if they do well on the PSAT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is generally taken in 11th grade though some students take it earlier. Any regular reader to this blog will know that I do not look kindly on anything in education that relies on a single standardized test score.

Here is a critique of the program that I recently read and wanted to share. It was written by Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, in response to a list-serv query about how schools should display National Merit winners. His advice: Don’t.

By Jonathan Reider
National Merit status is a good example of the Platonic distinction between attractive illusion and truth. The whole National Merit program is a Platonic illusion. It is based, as we all know, on the PSAT score from the junior year.

All standardized test scores directly correlate with family income. This correlation has been openly presented by the College Board for many years, and it has never changed much despite the various changes to the test.

It is a better correlation than any other measure, including high school grades, rigor of curriculum, and family level of education. Not that these are irrelevant, but family income is the single best measure, just as, to throw in a favorite pet peeve of mine, a college’s U.S. News ranking is most strongly correlated with the peer evaluation of that college. (A pox upon them all!)

Let me leave aside the ridiculous forms the National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses, the refusal to allow us to just send a transcript instead of filling in the silly grading grid, and the absurd box that both the student’s essay and our letter of recommendation must fit in. Those are just annoyances, of course, but we just go through the hoops and do it because, if we didn’t, some parent would complain. National Merit is stuck intellectually and procedurally in the 1950s.

So when you honor or announce the National Merit semifinalists, or later, the finalists, etc., you are essentially presenting, with some exceptions, the hierarchy of income at your high school, not much more than that.

At my school, I discreetly email the Semifinalists when I receive the packets in September and ask them to come to a quiet meeting where I hand out the application packets and give them the instructions they need. No public announcement is made of numbers (and they are usually quite good, however you want to measure it), much less names. The number does appear in the school profile, but that’s about it.

Who, in the end, really cares, except those who want to count noses? It certainly has very little, if anything, to do with the quality of the school.

If I may add another two cents, I find the whole National Merit enterprise of very dubious value these days. It makes people think this is important (the Platonic illusion), when it really isn’t for almost everyone, including many colleges.

I even get inquiries occasionally about test prep for the PSAT, which ....I strongly discourage. Every year, my school gets a big, expensive-looking packet from one of the Cal. State Universities (not nearby) addressed to each NMSF (National Merit Scholarship finalist) inviting them to apply for the Presidential Scholarship at that school. I dutifully hand them out, but no one ever applies. And you wonder why the public system in California is in financial distress.

On the other hand, the UC system voted a few years ago to stop using NMSF status as a factor in awarding their own merit scholarships. Good for them.

So, no, I don’t think [school s] should advertise them, or even pay them much heed.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 8, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  National Merit Program, college admissions  
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"All standardized test scores directly correlate with family income."

THis is completely untrue. As has been well-documented, poor whites do better than wealthy blacks.

I don't much care about this guy's righteous rant one way or the other, but that's just not true.

Moreover, both the blogger and this writer are incorrect: the National Merit finalist is not selected solely by test score. They used to be, until the enormous performance disparity between races forced them to change. Semifinalists are selected by score, but finalists are selected by a combination of grades and essays.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 8, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

According to National Merit's annual report 16,464 students were named Semifinalists in the high school class of 2009. From that group 15,449 (or 94%) became Finalists after submitting grades, essays and ACT/SAT scores. The additional information is used solely to "confirm" the elimination of 99% of all students who enter the competition solely on the basis of their PSAT/NMSQT scores -- it does not materially alter the composition of the scholarship eligibility pool. Moreover, National Merit tries to keep secret the geographic quotas it uses so that the required test-score minimums differ widely by state (see

Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

Posted by: FairTest | February 8, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

As a National Merit semifinalist in the 60's, and the parent of a finalist in the past decade. I disagree with the writer's bias. I was not from a wealthy family. I was an ESOL student before there was an ESOL program. My parents were nearly illiterate immigrants. They both had less than 5 years of education. My child was required to write several essays for his prize. He was a very good student and graduated from college with honors in both of his majors as well as phi beta kappa.

Posted by: rit21042 | February 9, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

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