NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

National Merit Scholarships

February 10, 2004

Last week, 15,000 high school seniors learned that they would be National Merit finalists, one of the highest academic honors a student can receive. Winners, selected based on a test they take as juniors (the preparatory- or P-SAT), are recognized at school assemblies, have their names published in local newspapers and are eligible for more than $30 million in private scholarships.

What's not mentioned in is that the awards are not awarded on a national basis, says USA Today. The nonprofit National Merit Scholarship Corp. determines the highest scoring students by state, and semifinalist spots are allocated on that basis:

  • In selecting 16,000 semifinalists last fall, the NMSC used a formula that reflects the share of graduates from each state.
  • Mississippi, for example, had 1 percent of all graduating seniors, so it was guaranteed 1 percent of semifinal spots although its winners had test scores well below those of other states' winners.
  • In 2001, Mississippi semifinalists needed only 200 points out of 240 on the test; Maryland students needed at least 220.
  • One way is through state-allocated awards such as National Merit Scholarships.
  • Other ways include tests that average schoolwide performances so pockets of low-scoring minorities are obscured.

In 2001, the federal government cracked down on the practice, at least in testing. States now must break down test results so students' performance can be tracked and accurately compared.

Many local officials have resisted, arguing that Washington shouldn't impose educational standards. Yet, when high school graduates head for college and work they are judged as part of a vast national pool. Whether they're National Merit finalists or less-esteemed students, society won't cut them slack if they attended weak schools, says USA Today.

Source: Editorial, "National Merit scholars," USA Today, February 10, 2004.

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