National “Merit”-a measure of a school?
This is the second part of a series I’m writing to explore various measures schools use measure their progress, and often, celebrate their ‘greatness’. In the first part, I discussed how college lists are a poor measure of the quality of a school. In future posts, I hope to examine some measures that I think do signify the quality of a school, but first I need to address one that doesn’t: National Merit.
When I was in high school, I can remember my friends and I getting so excited to be invited to join “Who’s who among American High School Students.” We thought this was a huge honor—just the name alone sounded so prestigious, and surely this must be the first step on the road to being listed in who’s who in America, in Law, or in Science. It didn’t take long for us to find out that basically, Who’s Who is a scam designed to rob ego-centric teenagers of time and money as they fill out the form and shell out money to purchase the Who’s Who directory so they can admire their tiny little picture among a sea of other victimized students.
In this post, I wish to examine another measure of excellence I craved in high school, National Merit. Again, the name sounds so prestigious—it makes students instantly crave it as validation for all that hard work they put into high school. You can get a sense of just how much the world seems to think of National Merit by reading articles that describe students who have achieved the distinction.
So what is the “Merit” that is being recognized by the National Merit Corporation? In three words—high PSAT scores.
In 1955, the National Merit Corporation was founded to “identify and honor scholastically talented American youth and to encourage them to develop their abilities to the fullest.” How did they do this? With the Scholarship Qualifying Test, first given to 58,000 students. Later, in 1971, the Scholarship Qualifying Test gave way to the PSAT, and ever since, the PSAT is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).
PSAT scores as National “Merit”? Seriously? Merit does not mean that these students have written the next great novel, or demonstrated understanding of some particularly complex proof in mathematics, but instead “Merit” is simply a crude measure of how rapidly students can make quick strategic guesses with limited information on one particular day in October.
But this isn’t all. National Merit is earned on a state-by-state basis. Each state sets a “cutoff,” representing the score students in that state must meet in order to reach National Merit Semifinalist Status (designated by the 99th percentile). The difference in these cuttoffs is tremendous—Massachusetts has a cutoff of 223 (out of 240), while Mississippi is nearly 20 points lower, at 205.
You can earn national “merit” by scoring an outstanding score on the PSAT, and you can improve your chances of merit-worthiness if you pull this feat off in a state like Mississippi.
But that’s just what it takes to reach semifinalist status, right? Surely it must take something more to be a finalist. Hardly. Yes, the semifinalist submits an essay, and the school writes a recommendation in support of the candidate, but over 90% of semifinalists are given finalist status.
So when we boil everything down, being a National Merit Scholar means you’re exceptionally good on a standardized test that is so meaningless, the corporation that created has decided its name has no meaning.
Of course, it’s fine if students still have National Merit as one of their big goals as high school students. I know I did. I’m more concerned when schools begin to use the number of National Merit Scholars at its school as metric to measure its success. Counting and celebrating the number of National Merit Scholars at your school is simply waiving around a sign that reads:
Some of our students do really well on standardized tests!
Of course it sounds pretty lame when you put it that way.
This statistic has little to do with the missions that most schools extol on their websites. Calling PSAT scores a measure of academic excellence is a stretch of unbearable proportions.
But here’s the real rub. Even if a school does manage to have a number of its graduates earning national merit, what does this say about the school? Does it say that that particular school does a wonderful job of educating young minds? If only it were that easy.
Let’s look at some of the research out there on what SAT scores correlate with. First, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that intensive SAT prep courses only produce modest gains in scores, and many courses employ deceptive practices of giving diagnostic tests that are harder than the real SAT in order to inflate the gain achieved by students. It would stand to reason that if intensive SAT prep courses have little effect on SAT scores, schools themselves, who pride themselves in not “teaching to the test” would not have a a major effect on PSAT scores.
But there is one thing that is undeniably highly correlated with achievement on the PSAT and SAT—income. The New York Times gives a great summary of the link between income and SAT scores, and it is most clearly summarized by this chart from, taken from the linked post.
What is the best way for a school to get more National Merit Finalists? It seems obvious—admit wealthier students.
Maybe we should amend that sign to read
Some of our students do really well on standardized tests! And most of our students are really wealthy.
Somehow, I just don’t think that has the same cachet as celebrating the number of National Merit Scholars. In my next post, I’ll talk about some measures with real meaning that I think schools should be celebrating.
NB: One final rub is that the National Merit Scholarship isn’t much of a scholarship. Most finalists get nothing for their achievement. Those who chose to attend the small number of colleges that give awards for National Merit Scholars often get between $500-$2000 a year. If you happen to be the child of a parent who works at a small number of companies that offer National Merit Scholarships, you might be eligible to win some money from your parent’s employer. The NMSC gives out 2500 $2500 scholarships to a fraction of the finalists, for a total of $6 million in awards. Compare that number to the $160 million financial aid budget at Harvard, or the $56,000 cost to attend Harvard and you’ll see it’s a drop in the bucket. Of course, every bit counts, but it’s hard for me to see a $6 million dollar scholarship program really earning the title of National Merit.