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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 02/22/2010

D.C.'s National Merit winners aren't all from D.C.

By Valerie Strauss

Poor Washington D.C. Not only does it not have full representation in Congress but, it turns out, its residents don’t get full representation in the National Merit Scholarship Program either.

The academic scholarship program offers cash awards to high achieving students who are initially screened by their scores on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is usually taken in the junior year of high school.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which administers the program, says that the country’s top students win, though the test scores that make a student eligible are not the same in each state.

The reason, corporation spokesman Eileen Artemakis explained, is that program officials want each state and the District of Columbia to be recognized in the talent pool. The number of students named semifinalists in each state is proportional to that state’s percentage of the total number of graduating high school seniors across the country.

So the qualifying score is different in each state and changes from year to year.

One might assume that scholarship winners live in the state in which they are named, which would provide the proportional representation that the National Merit folks say they want.

But that’s not always the case.

For example, not all of the winners in Washington D.C. live in the city. Some reside in Maryland or Virginia and attend private schools in the District.

Last year, nine students in D.C. schools were named National Merit finalists. Only four were D.C. residents, and only one of the nine attended a public school, Wilson High School. The rest attended private schools.

This past October, about 55 students from 12 schools in the District were named. Seven are from two public schools, Wilson and Banneker High Schools. The rest are from private schools, although I don’t know where they live. I’m betting a good percentage don’t live in the District.

I asked Artemakis about this and she said that students are recognized as semifinalists through their high schools, which receive the applications for consideration.
“If they do go on to become scholarship winners... they are announced in their town of residence,” she said.

She didn’t explain why it was done this way.

The D.C. representation issue has been raised before. A District resident, John J. Sullivan, sent a letter to the corporation in 2004, asking that the methodology for selecting winners be changed. Sullivan's daughter was a National Merit winner who happened to live in the District. His letter said in part:

“I do not see how the present selection process , as currently applied in the District of Columbia , serves the clearly articulated and laudable goal set forth by the NMSC program. To the contrary, I am convinced that due in part to the geographical size of the District of Columbia and the manner in which the NMSC selects the District of Columbia participants, it serves to deprive a significant number of District of Columbia public school students and residents of the public honor and achievement which appropriately and deservedly accompanies those students who are identified as National Merit Semifinalists, Finalists and/or Scholars.

"Conversely, it serves to increase the number of National Merit Semifinalists who are residents of Maryland and Virginia. While they are Maryland and Virginia students that clearly deserve recognition, such recognition should not be at the expense of District of Columbia public school students and residents.

“I understand the administrative convenience that is served by using the location of the high school as a short hand proxy to identify the eligible residents from a given jurisdiction. In the overwhelming majority of instances this does serve as an acceptable proxy for identifying the residents from the jurisdiction. It does not, however, do so in the District of Columbia. To the contrary, it serves to exclude many well qualified District of Columbia public school students from participation in this wonderful scholarship competition. Much as it would, I suspect if students attending exclusive private schools located in New Hampshire such as Phillips-Exeter and St. Paul’s were included in the New Hampshire results for purposes of determining the New Hampshire participants.”

Sullivan's offer to share remedies to the problem went unanswered.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, D.C. Schools, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  National Merit Scholarship program, college admissions  
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Perhaps Michelle Rhee, or even Victor Reinoso (is he still Deputy Mayor for Education in DC?) would like to take on this issue.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | February 22, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

The one part that does concern me is there are apparent differences in requirements for the various states. So are we talking kid does not qualify for MD, thens applies for DC because his school is in DC?

i don't get the impression that MD or VA kids are taking DC seats. I always read this as where the kids attend school versus it being a DC, MD or VA thing. I am sure in other tri-state or bi-state areas the same issues arise.

Posted by: oknow1 | February 22, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

to "OKNOW1": no one applies to this program. You take a test and then are notified by the testing company of your score. No student can shop for an easier venue. They are where they are. MD and VA kids are absolutely taking scholarships from DC kids. Re-read Strauss's article - nine kids was DC's allotment, yet only five of the nine scholarships awarded went to DC residents. The other four were from MD and VA.
Mr. Sullivan's letter is one of the most cogent letters I've ever read. Kudos. He is correct, and it's DC's kids who are taking the hit. When they need to be shown again and again and again the benefits that come from an education, instead they lose out to the wealthier suburbs ... as always.
The NMSP should be changed, and immediately.

Posted by: LoveIB | February 22, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Well, I'm sure 99.99% of students live in the same state that they go to school in. But it is quite clear that the tiny minority that go to school "out of state" can cause significant problems with how the program is administered. So why doesn't the College Board simply add a bubble row to its answer sheet and ask students to bubble in which state they live in?

I'm sure this is not only an issue here, as there are many metro areas where suburbs are in a different state than the city, and where affluent suburbanites go to school at prestegious city schools. NYC, Philly, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Charlotte....all major metro areas that straddle state lines.

In the meantime, anyone who won a national merit scholarship in the wrong state should have it revoked and returned to someone who rightfully deserves it.

Posted by: thetan | February 22, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

To thetan, your comment that " anyone who won a national merit scholarship in the wrong state should have it revoked" is overly harsh and misses the point.

The District of Columbia Qualifying score for a 2010 National Merit semifinalist is 221 - the highest qualifying score of any state and coincidentally equal to score required of the Boarding School category ( which would include schools such as Philip Exeter and Choate) . Consequently, any Maryland or Virginia resident who qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist in the District of Columbia would have qualified in their presumed resident states of Virginia and Maryland.

Those students are well deserving of the NMSC accolade. What needs to be remedied is the failure of the NMSC process to give the deserving DC residents who atttend high school their fair share of the NMSC pie - a pie which the NMSC claims to fairly slice.

Posted by: TenleytownTom | February 22, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

TenleytownTom, my apologies. I (wrongly) assumed that the DC qualifying score was much lower than Maryland and Virginia's. I suppose in a way I'm pleasantly surprised that it is not. But then again, I have to wonder, if so many private school kids in DC who don't live there are driving up the averages making it more difficult for DC residents in private or public schools.

So although they would still qualify for a scholarship in their home state (and should therefore not have it revoked), they are probably still making it more difficult for DC residents to get them by driving up the averages, so the situation definitely still needs to be remedied.

Posted by: thetan | February 22, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

When I was in high school, there was Post article with a quote from girl whose NMSQT score failed to qualify in DC but would have qualified in Maryland where she lived. She felt a great injustice had been perpetrated, so it cuts both ways. Between Sidwell, St. Albans, National Cathedral, Georgetown Day, and St. Anselms, the District has five of the best day schools within its borders. True, some of them come from out of state, but they are the minority. This article and subsequent comments reflect the reflexive victimology of a lot of D.C. residents.

Posted by: chgobluesguy | February 24, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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