Wednesday, October 10, 2012

National Merit-ocracy

Today’s main event at the intersection of College Admissions Boulevard and Ethics Avenue is the oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in the affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas.  That case, and that issue, will undoubtedly generate much discussion in the coming months, this space included. 

The court case is not the only admissions-related ethical issue deserving of attention on this day, however.  For many of us on the secondary side of the desk, today is significant as the deadline to submit National Merit applications.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is the nation’s oldest and largest merit scholarship program, dating back to the 1950’s.  The National Merit program provides nearly 50 million dollars in scholarships each year, most funded either by colleges or by corporations that fund scholarships for children of employees. 

Last fall New York University announced that it will no longer fund National Merit Scholarships.  Whenever a college breaks out of the admissions pack, everyone watches to see if it is the beginning of a movement, and at the time Bloomberg News described the NYU move as “another blow to National Merit.”  That seems a bit melodramatic, given that there is no evidence that the National Merit program is terminally ill, but two issues related to National Merit (and its parallel program, the National Achievement Program for Outstanding Negro Students) raise questions about whether they are relevant in the 21st century or relics of the 1950’s similar to the Studebaker.

The first and most objectionable is that initial eligibility for the National Merit program is based solely on a student’s performance on the PSAT taken in the junior year.  That may be an efficient way to screen candidates, but the use of a single test score as a “cutscore” is at odds with best practice for use of college admission testing.

That point was made by the NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission (chaired by Harvard Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Bill Fitzsimmons) in its 2008 report and in communications to NMSC and its partner in crime, the College Board. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served as President-elect of NACAC when the Testing Commission report was adopted.)  The NACAC communications fell on deaf ears.  The NMSC described the PSAT as an “optimal vehicle,” while the College Board described the PSAT as “our greatest access and equity tool” and supported the right of its client NMSC to set its own policies.

 The same point was made in 2005 by the University of California when it decided to stop funding National Merit Scholarships.  The report of the University’s Education Financing Model Steering Committee expressed concern that the PSAT was “the sole criteria for eliminating 97% of test takers from National Merit Scholarship consideration” despite the fact that “it has not been validated for predicting academic merit.”  The report also talked about “fundamental principles governing responsible use of standardized tests.”

What are those fundamental principles?  First and foremost is that test results should be used in conjunction with other factors.  That is done in later stages of the National Merit process, but you become a Semifinalist based on one test taken on one day.  Second is that any test score is far from precise.  The margin of error on any section of the SAT or PSAT is 30 points, such that a score of 600 means that the score falls with the 570-630 range.  National Merit’s use of a strict cutscore as a sole criterion is invalid because it ignores the margin of error.

The second issue is that National Merit determines Semifinalists based on a geographic quota.  The percentage of Semifinalists by state corresponds to the state’s percentage of all the high school graduates in the nation.  What that means is that the qualifying score to become a Semifinalist varies greatly depending on the state one lives in. Should merit be defined differently in Massachusetts and Mississippi?  Should a student who moves out of state after his sophomore year become a National Merit Semifinalist while a classmate with higher PSAT scores who remains doesn’t?

What constitutes merit?  Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen, a fascinating history of college admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, identifies that as the essential question for college admissions in the 20th century, with the paradigm changing from “best student” to “best graduate” to “best class.”  The National Merit program has served America well for almost 60 years, but it is a vestige of a simpler time when African-Americans were called Negroes and the SAT was believed to measure aptitude and not economic advantage.  Is it time to change how we define and measure merit for the 21st century?


  1. I agree with Jim Jump. I served on the NACAC Commission with Bill Fitzsimmons and there was a feeling among the members of the committee that test prep does work to some extent, yet not everyone can afford test prep. In addition, I suffered a TBI recently and am even more aware of the things that one can do to affect "IQ" test scores. Those scores are not static! Yet teachers , counselors, and college admissions officers are not fully aware of how these things are affected by circumstances beyond the control of individual students. It is a great fallacy of our societal belief that certain people are "smarter" than others. How one defines "smart" is very different in different situations. If colleges are truly striving to have a diverse population, then they need to holistically look at a student without considering simple test scores. The National Merit competition is helping to drive the misconception of what is truly "meritorious".

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