If you know anything at all about the PSAT, then the current conservative media hysteria charging the elite Virginia high school with “withholding announcement” of National Merit awards makes no sense at all. Before I heard about this brouhaha, I knew 90% of everything about the PSAT. Figuring out how to explain that this hysteria is absurd required me to learn the other 10%, which I’ll now share with you, dear readers.
The PSAT is formally known as the PSAT National Merit, Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. Back in the dark ages, from 1959 to some point in the 19990s, the test had a legitimate function as an initiation to the SAT proper. Juniors took the PSAT and seniors took the SAT in October, which was SAT Day. By the time I began tutoring in 2002, “SAT Day” had already moved back to March of junior year, per College Board recommendation. Before the pandemic, competitive students began taking the SAT much earlier in their junior year. So as a practice test, the PSAT long ago lost its utility.
The real value of the PSAT comes from its association with the National Merit awards. Originally, the Scholarship Qualifying Test was a different entity that identified top students as semifinalists, who then “confirmed” their SQT score with an SAT. But tests are expensive to write, so in 1971 the two organizations joined forces and the PSAT became the qualifying test.
National Merit qualification is the PSAT’s reason for existence these days. For students, qualification permits recognition that has otherwise been erased from the modern era–and by modern, I don’t mean the current post-Floyd “tests are bad” phase but going back to the 80s or even earlier. All you need for National Merit recogntion is a really high PSAT test score that puts you in the top 1% of all testers. The SAT has no equivalent. There’s no official SAT 1600 Club, no “Top 1% Score” label students can include in their CV.
So a major point of the PSAT–arguably its only real value–is to identify the top 1% and giving them bragging rights. Since Asian immigrants and months or years of prep broke the tests, the labels aren’t as impactful as they once were. But to Asians, they are particularly important because the scores can’t be gamed by state discrimination. While states with high Asian populations have higher cut scores, the scores themselves are the only way to play. No one is culling out Asians or making them meet a higher standard. The single standard is so essential to the National Merit qualification that, rather than change this, a national recognition category was defined for the lower scoring ethnicities.
If, as I claim, that’s the primary feature of the PSAT, one might wonder why other kids not in the top 1% would bother taking the PSAT at all, given the wide range of SAT test prep and the complete lack of value the PSAT has in their lives. Hard truth: Most kids are only taking the PSAT to provide a decent-sized mountain for the winners to sit atop.
To keep the PSAT tradition alive despite the fact that the nearly three hour tet has little benefit for the other 96%, the College Board gives complete control to high schools. Students don’t register for the PSAT with the College Board (as they do for the SAT). High schools administer and own the PSAT. They decide what day to run the test (Tuesday or Saturday). They decide if the test will be limited to their students or if they will sell seats to kids from other schools. They decide whether or not they will require their students to take it.The scores and notifications are sent to the schools, not the students–these are precisely the circumstances that created the TJ hysteria currently in the news. While the SAT registration fee increases almost every year, the PSAT is just $18–very affordable to states who might want to pick up the tab.
In short, we still have the PSAT because the College Board uses the National Merit awards to increase their cachet and in exchange gives control and affordability to high schools, who have various reasons for wanting their student population to take college admissions tests, from bragging rights about national merit to ensuring they aren’t missing bright unmotivated kids to..whatever, I haven’t gamed out all the advantages. Otherwise, it’d be long gone.
The essential category achievement in National Merit ranking is “semifinalist”.
National Merit Semi-finalists are, roughly, those receiving the top 1% of PSAT scores. Designation isn’t an exact science, because the finalists are apportioned by state. Different states have tighter (California, Virginia) or looser (South Dakota) cut scores, but it’s basically the top 1%.
Most semifinalists go on to be finalists. Not all do–for example, I was a semi-finalist whose school didn’t even bother to tell me there was paperwork to apply for the next step because my GPA was a 3.3 and I had something like 4 Ds so didn’t have a shot at finalist. But most.
The scholarships themselves aren’t all that big a deal. There are three categories of scholarships: NM corporate, NM university, and National Merit itself. Awards are far more subjective. The corporate scholarships are usually limited to students whose parents are employees, or living in a particular region. The university scholarships aren’t even offered by most schools but are used by less prestigious schools to offer full-rides to smart kids if they commit. The NM-sponsored scholarships are for $2500. So not that much money and–crucially–determined in late spring, long after college offers have been made. No application gloss factor.
So for all practical purposes, semi-finalists are the ball-game. They’re declared in September, and are a pretty reliable indicator that the student was in the 99th percentile for his state.
Prior to the TJ story, that’s what I knew.
The TJ story has various iterations but makes this charge:
Last fall, along with about 1.5 million US high school juniors, the Yashar teen took the PSAT, which determines whether a student qualifies as a prestigious National Merit scholar. When it came time to submit his college applications this fall, he didn’t have a National Merit honor to report — but it wasn’t because he hadn’t earned the award. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois, had recognized him as a Commended Student in the top 3 percent nationwide — one of about 50,000 students earning that distinction. Principals usually celebrate National Merit scholars…
To those of us generally familiar with the PSAT, there are two unfamiliar terms that immediately jump out: Commended Student and National Merit scholar.
The other fact that jumps out is the 3%. Remember, semi-finalist is top 1%. So Commended Student is way downstream from the only important category. Basically, a participation trophy. I thought the term might be relatively new, but I found mention of it going back 30 years, so it’s not new–just unimportant. In fact, I think my own son must have qualified and DAMN NO ONE TOLD ME EITHER.
Then I dug into “National Merit Scholar” and learned that it is the formal term for kids who make it all the way through to a scholarship from the organization. No one uses the term “National Merit Scholar” for anything less. And as I said, the actual scholarship winners aren’t as big a deal as the semi-finalists, which is why I hadn’t heard the term. (On the Advanced Placement side, AP Scholar has far more significance.) Here’s a University of South Florida campus celebrating the presence of eight National Merit Scholars on campus. USF Petersburg gives each student a full ride on tuition and board in exchange for the student openly committing to the school. This is not a list of semifinalists, even, as can be seen by the declaration of major.
So again: Semi-finalist status is coin of the realm. Commended is also-ran, Finalist is status too late to matter, Scholar is more status too late, but also some money.
So that’s nearly 1300 words on the National Merit and PSAT.
In Part II, I’ll explain why the l’affaire TJPSAT is not just nothing, but a really embarrassing nothing. Hint: everyone retweeting this story either genuinely thinks or is perpetuating a lie “commended” is “scholar”.