How fair does this sound? To qualify for a national merit scholarship, students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — as well as the 48 other states — all take the same exam but don’t have to get the same scores to win. Welcome to the PSAT, qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

More than 3.5 million high school students across the country are taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test this week, which the College Board, the test’s owner, calls in this release “an important step on the road to college readiness.”

Is it really?

The exam has three parts — critical reading, math and writing skills — and is taken mostly by 11th graders, but also by sophomores. It serves, for many students, as practice for the SAT college admissions exam; the College Board says that data for the class of 2011 showed that students who took the PSAT scored 145 points higher on the SAT than those who did not take the PSAT before taking the SAT.

The PSAT is not just a test, though. Kids who score high enough in their states become eligible for a prestigious National Merit scholarship.

About 50,000 students qualify based on their PSAT scores, and that number is whittled down to about 16,000, who become semifinalists (the 34,000 others get letters of commendation). About 8,500 are named finalists, eligible for a scholarship of varying amounts, based on test scores as well as other criteria including academic performance.

But here’s something you might not expect: the initial cutoff scores separating the possible winners from the definite losers are not the same in each state.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the non-profit organization that operates the program, says that states semifinalists are designated on a state representational basis so that students from every part of the country are included. The cutoff scores vary from year to year, as well as from state to state.

Plenty of college admissions counselors don’t like the system, saying that a national scholarship program should use the same criteria for everyone. What winds up happening, they say, is that students can wind up winning with lower scores than students who didn’t make the cut in their state.

In fact, six years ago, the University of California system officials announced that six UC campuses that had been providing funding for National Merit Scholarships (the three other general campuses did not participate) would stop it and instead use the money for other merit-based scholarships.

The reason? UC school chancellors agreed with the system’s Academic Council, which had expressed concern that using PSAT scores alone to determine scholarship qualifiers was an improper high-stakes use of a standardized test score.

The College Board does not release a list of cut scores, but said in a release scores are reported on a scale of 20 to 80. For 2010, the average 11th grade scores were: 47 in critical reading, 49 in math and 45 in writing. Average 10th grade scores in 2010 were: 43 in critical reading, 44 in mathematics and 40 in writing skills.

Each year various unofficial lists of cutoff scores are kept by various people and posted on the web, assembled from reports of test takes in each state. One of these for the class of 2012 (see below), shows that Washington D.C. has the highest cut score, 223, along with New Jersey and Massachusetts. The lowest cutoff score on this list is 204, in North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

And there’s more: Scholarship winners are not necessarily named in the state in which they live, which would provide the proportional representation that the National Merit folks say they want. They are named in the state — or city, in Washington D.C.’s case — where they attend school. As a result, some National Merit winners in the past who have been listed as coming from Washington D.C. go to private schools in the city, but live in Maryland or Virginia.

An unofficial list of cut scores for the class of 2012 assembled by the Web site College Planning Simplified, which provides free college planning advice, shows these.

Alabama 211
Alaska 212
Arizona 213
Arkansas 205
California 221
Colorado 215
Connecticut 220
Delaware 217
District of Columbia 223
Florida 214
Georgia 218
Hawaii 216
Idaho 211
Illinois 216
Indiana 214
Iowa 210
Kansas 214
Kentucky 212
Louisiana 209
Maine 212
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 223
Michigan 210
Minnesota 215
Mississippi 205
Missouri 213
Montana 209
Nebraska 209
Nevada 209
New Hampshire 216
New Jersey 223
New Mexico 210
New York 219
North Carolina 217
North Dakota 204
Ohio 214
Oklahoma 209
Oregon 216
Pennsylvania 215
Rhode Island 213
South Carolina 211
South Dakota 206
Tennessee 214
Texas 219
Utah 208
Vermont 217
Virginia 220
Washington 220
West Virginia 204
Wisconsin 209
Wyoming 204


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