How to interpret PSAT-11 scores for National Merit Scholarships

By Rajkamal Rao  

If you're the parent of a teenager who took the PSAT/NMSQT in October, this post is for you. If you're a parent of a 11th grader, this post is a must-read!

There's a lot of confusion about what exactly the PSAT is. For starters, it's the Preparatory SAT, so it gives students a chance to test-drive the actual SAT with a look and feel that's identical. The exam environment, the proctoring of the test, the questions, answer choices, the balancing of the degrees of difficulty across various questions, the sections, the scoring, the reporting - every aspect of the larger SAT is replicated on the PSAT with great care.

There are some important differences between the two tests. The SAT is on an 800 scale but the PSAT is on a 760 scale. The SAT's essay is optional; the PSAT has no essay.

The PSAT in many ways is a lot more important to school districts than it is to students. Just like the STAAR test is an indicator of a district's performance in demonstrating that children have learned basic math and reading skills, the PSAT is a test which school districts covet because it allows them to brag about how well-prepared their students are to pursue college. After all, SAT (or ACT) scores are still needed at most colleges, so a good PSAT score is evidence of a likely good future SAT/ACT score, which means you're likely a good candidate for college. At least, this is the theory.

To the 9th and 10th grade student, other than the "test-drive" features of the test, the PSAT score is not of much consequence. The PSAT score cannot be used in college admissions. Every student is mandated to take the test, so there's no differentiation which one student can claim over another.

For the 11th grader, the scene dramatically changes because the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) comes in as a player. The PSAT-11 test also serves as the NMSQT and assumes enormous significance, sometimes just as important, if not more important than, the SAT/ACT.

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How NMSQT Scores Are Calculated

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation is a non-profit which works with the College Board to evaluate student merit. It then lobbies (and cajoles, even) thousands of private companies to dole out merit scholarships to merit-worthy students.

The NMSC is smart because it didn't create another aptitude test monster to burden students (and its budgets) with. It decided to piggy-back on the exhaustive/expansive testing infrastructure of the College Board to use the same PSAT-11 scores to determine its awardees.

So the College Board has nothing to do with National Merit Scholarships other than to dutifully conduct the PSAT. The NMSC has no obligation to use PSAT scores as published to select its winners.

Indeed, this difference can be seen in how the NMSC scores are calculated. The so-called Selection Index Score (SIS), which the NMSC generates, double-counts the "Reading and Writing" score on the PSAT. Because there are two sections on the PSAT - "Reading and Writing" and "Math", this amounts to weighting a student's "Reading and Writing" skills as 67% important whereas Math, in the view of the NMSC, is only 33% important.

A future NMSC could change the SIS computation to make the two sections equally weighty, or even switch the weights given the world's gravitation to STEM fields. But for 23 years, the non-profit has stayed with its current bias towards reading and writing.

In the example above, where a student scored 730 on the Reading test and 750 on the Math test, the SIS is calculated as [730+730+750]/10. This amounts to an SIS of 221. In Texas, the National Merit Scholar Semifinalist cutoff for the incoming college class of 2019 (students who took the PSAT-11 in 2017) is 221.

The bias in the SIS computation can mean that two students with identical PSAT scores could see different NMSC outcomes.

Suppose a different student had a 720 in Reading and a perfect 760 in Math. Her PSAT is 1480, just as the student above. But the SIS would be calculated as [720+720+760]/10 = 220. In Texas, this student would fail to qualify for the NMS.

The Semifinalist, Finalist and Scholar Awards

The NMS awards have never been about the cash, which, in many cases average about $2,500. The awards are all about prestige and a badge of honor where merit is still based on pure academic performance and not some, subjective "holistic" evaluation of a student's promise.

The PSAT tests skills in reading, comprehension and math using questions in Science, History/Social Studies, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Algebra, Problem Solving, Data Analysis and Advanced Math - skills that high school students learn throughout their careers. It is refreshing to note that at least one nationalized organization recognizes these skills in our teenagers.

Nearly 1.6 million 11th grade students took the PSAT this year. Only 16,000 high scorers, about 1% of the total, will qualify for the NMS Semifinalist recognition; about 15,000 will be classified as NMS finalists, and about 8,000 will qualify for the NMS Scholar recognition, about 0.5% of the total. While the NMS Semifinalist determination is based only on the SIS score, further filtration is through other academic accomplishments, such as class rank, GPA and principal recommendations.

There's also a twist reminiscent of our political debates (popular vote against the electoral college). The ranking of the winners is not performed nationwide but within each state.

So, while a Texas student with a 221 SIS made the cutoff last year, he would have failed to make it in California where the cutoff was 223. In Arkansas, the cutoff for the same year was 204.

Whether the award is a letter from NMS granted to a larger subset recognizing the top 50,000 SIS scorers with a "Commended" certificate or a $2,500 cash scholarship for someone who is privileged to reach tighter levels of the filter, the real value is the right to brag about this accomplishment during college admissions.

The selectivity of the top schools in the nation ranges from about 4.6% (for Stanford) to about 11% (for Cornell). When a student has earned a merit badge designating her as commended, she is in the top 3.125% of the student population. If she were to make the NMS Semifinalist cutoff, she's in the top 1% of American students. All other things being equal, she should be sought by the top schools because they clearly accept students whose merit is lower.

Of course, merit is not the only determinant in college admissions, as the Harvard case shows. How well-rounded you are matters just as much.

But any top college which rejects an NMS Semifinalist because she is not well-rounded enough does so at its own peril. Not all top colleges can be this politically correct. So this girl will get in to multiple top schools if she so desires. The key is to apply to several top schools.

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