Many students and parents right now are nervously awaiting the announcement of PSAT scores, the scores that will be used to determine qualification for National Merit Semi-finalists which will give them a chance at getting a National Merit Scholarship. How nervous? Really nervous. Just take a look over at the College Confidential forums. Even sophomores, who can’t qualify until next year, are nervous.
Of course, once the scores come out, everyone will still have to await the announcement of the cut-off scores for National Merit qualification. As we wait on those announcements, I’ve been thinking lately about what the number of National Merit Scholars mean s about the effectiveness of any one particular high school. Can you use the number of National Merit Scholars as a criteria for choosing a good high school?
In short, no.
Can you study enough to guarantee that you’ll get a high enough score to qualify for National Merit? Can you predict if you be a National Merit Scholar based on your scores you Sophomore year? Can you predict your PSAT score based on an SAT score?
Again, all of the answers are most likely no.
I came to these conclusions based on our own experience, but also from the experiences of a friend who was generous enough to share her own kids’ PSAT and SAT results with me. I hope that my sharing this information will help you put your own , or your child’s, scores and hopes in perspective.
I was a National Merit Scholar, so my experience with National Merit goes back… ahem. A few years. I had the good fortune of a National Merit Scholarship that paid my entire college tuition. So when we started looking for a school district to move into, the number of National Merit Scholars was one thing that we considered. We weren’t concerned about any particular number, just that there were some. It’s not that we thought the National Merit test said anything about the intelligence of any one particular student (like GT test results, it’s not definitive). But we thought the presence of some National Merit Scholars meant that there were some intelligent kids in the school, there were families that valued education, and the schools were providing good instruction.
The school district had only 1-2 scholars per year. But the school district was growing, and given other factors, that was enough for us.
Fourteen years later, our daughter qualified on the state level for Duke TIP recognition. When we went to the awards ceremony, it was interesting to note that our school district had the same number of awards as a private school that one of our friend’s attends— a highly prestigious, very expensive, private school in the area. That meant our school district had a lower percentage of students at that level. Still, we found it to be an encouraging note on the level of instruction at our public school.
The problem came when I compared the number of National Merit Scholars at our two schools. Even though our district has been growing at a tremendous rate, our school district still only had 1-2 scholars a year. (We only have one high school.) The private school had about a dozen, a similar number to the number of Duke TIP scholars that year. I found this troubling. What was happening at our school between 7th and 11th grade?
One of my concerns was that the massive homework loads and summer projects at our school don’t leave my kids much time for leisure reading, even though my kids love to read. But the private school also has this difficulty.
Then because our oldest kid had promising scores on the PSAT test he took his sophomore year, we looked into some private tutoring. In spite of a couple of private tutoring sessions and a lot of practice tests, he reached a frustrating plateau. So we looked into some other PSAT/SAT prep materials. And then I ended up working with some of the materials with him the last weekend.
Even before I really dug into it, I was aware that the qualifying scores had gone up for Texas. But I didn’t understand exactly what that meant. (I think there were two seniors at our school who missed the new, higher cut-off by only one point.) I thought it just meant that it was hard to even get to that score.
But instead what I found was that even if your capable of achieving that high a score, results can vary widely based on many factors, including the version of the test you end up taking. (The test varies every year, and there are two different versions of the test in each individual year.)
The qualifying scores for Texas, 218 in 2013, have now reached the range where missing just one or two more questions can mean a vast difference in a total score. (At the upper end, missed questions are worth anywhere from 2-5 points, whereas in the mid-range they are only worth 0-2 points.) This wide fluctuation in scores at the upper end means that it’s not easy to predict your PSAT score on the National Merit qualifying test from past PSAT scores or SAT scores.
Also, while my son was capable of a perfect score on any one practice session, the results varied drastically, and I don’t think it was just inconsistency on his part. The test questions at that level varied quite a bit. In addition, he was more likely to get a question right when he followed a particular structure — you might call it a “trick” — for answering the question that he learned from one of the tutoring courses we purchased. For example, there was a critical reading question that I agreed with his answer choice, which was wrong, But when he stepped through the course’s method – when he followed their “trick” – he got it correct with ease.
I got the feeling that qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship was rather like going for the gold in the Olympics. To get there, you need to train an insane amount, many of the factors will be largely out of your control, and then the win is going to come down to a few fractions of a second.
In light of this, the experiences of our friend made a lot of sense. Their child was capable in practice tests of scoring much higher than the National Merit qualifying score, and their SAT scores were in line with that. But on the qualifying PSAT test, their score was pretty well below the cut-off. We find ourselves in a similar situation. Really, my son’s scores could go either way. And we’re fine with that. Yes, it would be really nice for him to be a National Merit Scholar. But understanding just how volatile PSAT scores are at this level, helps put our expectations in perspective.
National Merit can be worth quite a bit of money (over $100,000 at some universities) to individual families, so I think it’s still worth taking seriously. And our school still has some work to do in this regard. Because our son takes a mix of classes that also includes Seniors, he had significant homework both the night before and after the PSAT. And I also heard from some other parents who were frustrated that some extracurricular activities had late practices the night before the PSAT.
I also think that leisure reading — or lack of reading due to dislike or too little time because of homework and summer projects — does play a role in test scores on the current version of the PSAT. (Which will change next year.) Our son really had almost no room for improvement on his vocabulary. (The problem is more that it’s pretty hard to know the entire dictionary. Of course, some kids do. But you have to ask yourself the true value of that, if it’s worth the time.)
All this to say that this experience has changed my mind. I don’t think the number of National Merit scholars is even a good relative measure of a school’s effectiveness. And while spending and enormous amount of time studying might pay off in terms of tuition, it also might not. There might be other things that a student can better spend their time doing that will prepare them for success not just in school, but in life.