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National “Merit”-a measure of a school?

June 10, 2011

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.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2011 7:58 am

    There are so many meaningless measures, and most fall into one of two categories: They either matter a lot (like SAT score for getting into college), or they are a scam. As a high school student, I refused to take the PSAT and do things like National Honor Society. Self-congratulatory bullshit. In college, I refused to pay money so that the college could give me honors, and refused to pay money to get physics honors from SPS. In grad school, I had to threaten to sue local chapter of Golden Key society, because they wouldn’t stop sending me emails and letters requesting that I pay them to honor me.

    To me, it’s very encouraging that some universities and colleges are no longer requiring students to take tests like the SAT or ACT to be admitted. To me, it’s all one big scam, and higher education should refuse to contribute.

  2. June 10, 2011 9:03 am

    Whilst standardized tests and exams certainly do not tell us *everything* about a kid, a teacher or a program, they absolutely DO tell us *something*, and their (relative) objectivity should not be dismissed completely.

    I have no opinion on the PSAT or National Merit specifics since I know relatively little about them both, but I do have a strong opinion about AP Chemistry, the SAT subject test in Chemistry, the IB in Chemistry, A/S levels in Chemistry and ACS Chemistry tests. Those tests certainly DO have merit, and ARE useful measures of ability, knowledge and understanding on some level albeit with some limits. Does it mean that they are the gate-keepers of all knowledge and understanding in chemistry? Obviously not, but they ARE measures of something meaningful, in a way that other, fuzzy, lightweight assessments are sometimes not.

    As for success being related to income, opportunity and support – who knew?!?! 😉

    • June 10, 2011 9:53 am

      In this case, my main beef with National Merit is that it is often heralded by the outside public as some huge accomplishment. See the newspaper article I linked to, when in reality, it only signifies scoring very well on a standardized test that unlike the AP Chem tests and its cousins, is designed not to be a content-driven test. The College Board is very clear that the PSAT and SAT are tests that cannot be prepped for (unlike AP tests). So celebrating National Merit as a measure of a school seems to be rather pointless.

      As much as I dislike the AP tests, I don’t think celebrating AP scores engenders the same problem. On the contrary, to earn one of the various AP scholar designations, you need to master enough material to earn high scores on a large number of AP Tests (I think the distinction starts at 3 tests), and I think schools that teach these subjects could rightly claim they are responsible in significant part for these scores. While I still don’t think I would find this measure of success fully to my liking, it is at least more palatable than National Merit.

  3. June 10, 2011 12:07 pm

    I had a National Merit Scholarship (from taking the NMSQT before they threw it out for the much easier, low-ceiling Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is now just the PSAT and not an acronym for anything). In those days, the National Merit Scholarship paid the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition, allowing me to go to a state university from a different state. In the intervening years, the cost of university (particularly out-of-state tuition) has soared, but the amount of the National Merit scholarships has not increased at all. They are now purely a symbolic gesture, with no substance to either the sorting criteria or the reward.

    • June 11, 2011 6:52 am

      Very interesting. I knew a little about the history of National Merit, but not that it used to provide scholarships to cover the gap for attending out of state schools. It seems like the history of National Merit very much parallels the history of the SAT—both were very meritocratic ideas designed to help identify out talented students from throughout the country (as opposed to students at elite east coast prep schools), but over time, both have become co-opted from their original mission.

      • June 11, 2011 12:25 pm

        The National Merit Scholarship I had was funded by Michigan State University. They used it to recruit a cohort of top students to what was then definitely a second-rate school. I chose it over my own state school (University of Illinois) for reasons that now seem silly (my favorite math teacher in high school was an MSU alumnus, my brother went to U of I, U of I has the world’s most boring campus, but the MSU campus is pretty, MSU was far enough from home that I only had to go home for Christmas and summer, …). It worked out fairly well for me (thanks to the cluster of top students who were pretty isolated from the jock and keg party atmosphere of most of the campus at that time).

        MSU still funds National Merit Scholarships, but they fund them at about the same dollar amount that they used 40 years ago, so now they are just symbolic gestures and pretty useless for recruiting top students. This is pretty much what has happened to all “merit-based” awards—they have been almost completely supplanted in real dollar terms by “need-based” awards, which in turn have been almost entirely replaced by student loans.

  4. Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher permalink
    June 10, 2011 6:13 pm

    Go ahead and pile on the attacks on subjectivity but after 20 years of teaching at good public state research universities, I am pretty confident I can identify a graduating senior who is a successful learner and achiever. And when I go back and look at SAT scores, I am rarely surprised. Rarely as in fewer than 1 in 20. The same goes for med school applicants. I am impressed that the med schools seem to get it right most of the time. Med schools could allow entrance to at least another 25% without degrading quality. They are that good at getting it right – much more often than not, they admit those who at the very top of their game.

    • June 10, 2011 8:04 pm

      I’m not sure I fully understand your concern. In this post, my main critique is that National Merit has taken on a large measure of significance for many high schools as a measure of quality (i.e. lots of national merit scholars must mean we’re doing something good), when National Merit means little more than high schools on the PSAT, which schools have very little influence over.

      I agree that SAT shows some correlation with GPA in college—I’m not so sure I’d go so far as to say it correlates with learning, but that probably depends a lot on how we define those terms. The PSAT correlates reasonably well with the SAT scores, but beyond that, I’m hard pressed to figure out what they are good for.

      I don’t follow your Med school point—this is true of many of the most selective institutions. Some applicant pools are so selective they could admit another full class with seeing only the slightest decrease in GPA and SATs (if we want to use these as measures of quality, which I would not). But what does this say about the validity of National Merit as a measure of distinction?

  5. Zach Markowitz permalink
    June 12, 2011 6:06 pm

    While I agree with your post, I would like to make one very important correction – there are a significant number of universities that offer large scholarships to National Merit Finalists. I was offered a half-tuition scholarship at the University of Southern California and a full ride to the University of Alabama and Auburn University because I was a National Merit Finalist. While the National Merit Corporation does indeed give out minimal scholarships to its winners (I ended up taking the $2500 scholarship and matriculating at a school with no NMF scholarship), there are a surprising number of colleges that do shell out big bucks for NMFs.

    • June 12, 2011 11:20 pm

      You’re right, and I tried to acknowledge that a small number some schools do give awards to National Merit Finalists, but most of these awards are small, as gassstationwithpumps describes above. You are right, however, that some schools do give full scholarships for achieving this status. I also think the number of schools making these awards is shrinking.

      • Zach Markowitz permalink
        June 15, 2011 2:17 pm

        While I’m sure that the list is shrinking, I think the number of schools that give substantial awards is fairly large. Here’s an abridged list. Perhaps your students will find it useful! (:

      • Ms. Lynn permalink
        June 22, 2011 7:17 pm

        My son was a NMF from one of the most competitive states. He only took his SATs once because he scored well, (and standardized tests are a scam). He went to two competitive high schools where he took 9 AP classes and scored 5s on all exams and had 4.8 weighted gpa. He was waitlisted at Yale, Rice and Davidson. Turned down flat by Stanford and Scripps. He was accepted at UVA and Notre Dame. Disappointed, he went to the University of Alabama for free for two years, majored in Engineering and transferred to Johns Hopkins. U of Alabama paid for room, board, tuition, free laptop, and a stipend to study abroad. Lots of smart kids weigh the value of that very expensive piece of paper and choose schools that offer free tuition. Besides, two years at Hopkins is a lot more affordable than four years at Hopkins.

  6. Gil permalink
    September 9, 2011 5:16 pm

    Actually what this tells me is that the test does a really good job of picking the smartest kids, and believe it or not, the smartest kids usually are the most successful in life.

    • September 10, 2011 7:12 am

      I think you are misreading the graph, the graph is for family income (ie. parental income)—it says nothing about the how PSAT scores are correlated with future income, and my understanding is the research of this topic doesn’t back up the idea that the SAT is a good metric for finding successful people in life.

  7. Beverly permalink
    February 6, 2012 8:24 pm

    A) ALL test scores correllate with income, not just PSAT.
    B) Many colleges are still giving substantial scholarships for National Merit. The University of Oklahoma currently has a $92,000 scholarship package for National Merit, e.g. Baylor’s is over $130,000, and there are many more. I say those $$$ are very GOOD reasons to take the PSAT and do as well as you can.

  8. Hari Narayanan permalink
    February 14, 2016 12:56 am

    I am sick of seeing the income and SAT score graphs being paraded to somehow prove that the scores can be bought. What it means is that those children live in towns with schools that truly teach, have parents that are smart and successful and who are more likely to be a family, more likely to be good role models and more likely to be engaged in the education of their children.

  9. JillT permalink
    October 10, 2017 11:48 am

    Like everything else, parent’s education and affluence improves a student’s odds to do better on PSAT. However, as most private or affluent public schools don’t produce bulk of the NMSF, it’s obvious that attending good schools or slaving for hours every night at prep centers can’t turn a good student into a great student. Unless you have high IQ and are good at math and english, you aren’t making NMS. It’s a correlation that top students with high GPA and rank tend to do well on PSAT and SAT as well, and usually they are more likely to be involved into leadership roles and extracurriculars, hence their chances of moving from Semifinalist to finalist are usually pretty solid.

    If a school is producing high numbers of NMSF then usually they are good at teaching math, English and analytical skills. If you are looking at whole picture, you wouldn’t dismiss PSAT scores as nothing.

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