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Posted at 5:54 PM ET, 02/11/2010

Is this fair? National Merit qualifying scores differ by state

By Valerie Strauss

If you live in West Virginia, your child needs to score at least 203 on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is used to screen for candidates for the National Merit Scholarship program. But if you live in Virginia, that score has to be at least 218, as it is in New York. The cutoff score for Washington D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey is 221.

In fact, the cutoff scores vary in each state, and they vary from year to year. Some college admissions counselors think this is patently unfair, and that a national scholarship program should use the same criteria for everyone. In effect, they say, the program purports to take the very top high school students, or, rather, the top-scoring PSAT students but actually doesn't; students with higher scores can be exempted while others with lower scores in another state can qualify.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which administers the scholarship program, doesn’t see it that way. The program's officials see it as an issue of state equity.

A spokesman for the corporation, Eileen Artemakis, explained it this way:

“We want to ensure that we recognize outstanding students from all parts of the United States in the talent pool for the National Merit Program,” she said. “We designate students on a state representational basis, which means that the number [of student semifinalists] named in each state is proportional to its percentage of the national total of graduating high school seniors. So the scores will vary from state to state as well as from year to year because of that.”

The PSAT is usually taken in the fall of high school junior year. The scholarship website says that of the 1.5 million entrants, about 50,000 with the highest PSAT/NHMSQT Selection Index scores -- in critical reading, math and writing skills -- quality.

About 34,000--or more than two-thirds--of these will receive letters of commendation, while the rest become semifinalists for the actual scholarship. About 8,500 are named finalists, eligible for a scholarship of varying amounts.

Following are state cutoff scores for this year. The National Merit corporation will not give out the state cutoff scores but does provide them to high school counselors.

Do you think the National Merit process is fair? Tell me in the comments section or at Also, take a look at a high school counselor's view of the whole program here.

Alaska 211
Arizona 210
Arkansas 203
California 218
Colorado 213
Connecticut 218
Delaware 219
Washington D.C. 221
Florida 211
Georgia 214
Hawaii 214
Idaho 209
Illinois 214
Indiana 211
Iowa 209
Kansas 211
Kentucky 209
Louisiana 207
Maine 213
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 221
Michigan 209
Minnesota 215
Mississippi 203
Missouri 211
Montana 204
Nebraska 206
Nevada 202
New Hampshire 213
New Jersey 221
New Mexico 208
New York 218
North Carolina 214
North Dakota 202
Ohio 211
Oklahoma 207
Oregon 213
Pennsylvania 214
Rhode Island 217
South Carolina 211
South Dakota 205
Tennessee 213
Texas 216
Utah 206
Vermont 213
Virginia 218
Washington 217
West Virginia 203
Wisconsin 207
Wyoming 201

NOTE: An earlier version of this post misstated the cutoff score in the first paragraph.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 11, 2010; 5:54 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  National Merit Program, PSAT  
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Not fair. We live in Virginia and my son goes to school in Maryland, so the standard is higher for him than other kids who live in Virginia and go to school there. Shouldn't he qualify based on the Virginia cutoff?

It's just another quota that benefits kids who aren't as smart and go to weak schools at the expense of smarter kids whose parents treat education seriously.

Wouldn't it be an incentive for states to improve their educational systems if their kids couldn't qualify?

Everyone across the country should be judged by the same standards for this NATIONAL award.

Posted by: hockeymom1 | February 12, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

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