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Youngkin claims students were wronged. College experts say they needn’t worry.

Virginia’s governor is outraged over delayed delivery of National Merit commendations in Northern Virginia schools

Students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va., saw their National Merit Scholarship commendations delayed, but experts say that it shouldn't affect students' ability to get into the college of their choice. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Virginia’s governor is outraged. The state attorney general is investigating. Parents of college-bound students are up in arms. School leaders are apologizing and scrambling to rectify the oversight.

Yet the matter at the core of this drama — a delay in delivery of letters of commendation for standardized test scores at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and elsewhere in Northern Virginia — in all likelihood will have zero effect on the college admission prospects of any high school student or access to financial aid, according to experts in the field.

It boils down to this: Would the inclusion or omission of a commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Corp. affect the outcome of a college application?

“Never,” said Juan Espinoza, Virginia Tech’s associate vice provost for enrollment management. “I can say with confidence it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Even if it was in the file, it wouldn’t be anything that would move the needle in the review,” said Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia. “It’s just not part of our conversation.”

Espinoza and Roberts also said that, to their knowledge, the two universities also do not offer any scholarships tied to National Merit commendations.

These and other admission leaders emphasized they were unaware of details of an investigation into why there were delays last fall in notifying certain students about commendations for strong scores on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

The issue came to light after a parent at TJ, as the selective public school in Fairfax County is known, discovered the school had not delivered letters of commendation in time for students to list them on college applications that were due before a Nov. 1 deadline. Typically, according to the National Merit organization, the letters are sent in mid-September to schools for distribution.

To Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), the notification delays are a big deal.

Thomas Jefferson High under fire for delays in notification of student commendations

Youngkin has proposed legislation that would require schools to notify students when they receive an award. Last week the governor said in a statement that “at least 16 schools” in Northern Virginia “withheld notification of accolades from high-performing students in the name of ‘equity.’ Parents are rightfully upset and they should be.”

Miyares is examining whether the delays violated anti-discrimination provisions of the Virginia Human Rights Act. He sent Fairfax County Public Schools a letter on Jan. 9 demanding that officials preserve pertinent records and cooperate with investigators.

Asked about the consensus from experts that National Merit commendations are not influential in college admission decisions, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement: “We should not allow excuses for deliberate downplaying of student achievement in Virginia to stand. Any missed scholarship opportunity is one too many.”

Behind the controversy is an exam known as a warm-up for actual college admissions testing. The PSAT/NMSQT uses a format similar to the SAT, and it yields scores of up to 760 for math and 760 for reading and writing. The maximum total, therefore, is 1520.

Students sit for the test in October, typically as juniors, giving them practice for the SAT while entering them in a scholarship contest. About 1.35 million students in the Class of 2023 took the qualifying test and met National Merit participation requirements.

Of those, 37,903 scored high enough on the test to receive commendation but not high enough to advance in the contest, according to a National Merit report. One of several examples of a minimum score to reach that level, said Art Sawyer, a test-preparation expert who tracks the program, would be 690 on math and 690 on reading and writing. In essence, the commendation is an honor bestowed as those students exit the competition.

An additional 16,491 test-takers qualified as semifinalists in pursuit of prestigious National Merit Scholarships. The threshold varies from state to state, but most semifinalists scored well above the commendation level.

In Virginia, there were 1,725 commended students and 397 semifinalists. Fairfax County’s school system, like many others, named and celebrated its semifinalists publicly in mid-September.

For commended students, there is typically less public acclaim.

Shawnna Yashar, of Dunn Loring, Va., is the mother of a TJ student who was commended. Yashar said she was upset that her son did not learn about the recognition in time to include it on his college applications. Despite the opinion of admissions experts that the omission would not hurt his chances of getting into college, Yashar said she still believes the application should depict his record in the fullest and best possible light.

“You put everything together in the best way you can, and you put your best foot forward,” she said. Yashar wondered what college admissions officers would think if they expect to see a National Merit commendation from a TJ student and don’t find one listed. “Why did some other kid get to put this on their résumé and my kid didn’t?” she said. “I don’t think that was fair.”

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Several college admission experts told The Washington Post that parents and students shouldn’t sweat this particular detail.

“National Merit status is not something that factors into admissions decisions,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

What matters far more than awards and honors, experts say, is the rigor of an applicant’s courses. So do grades, extracurricular activities and obstacles that might have been overcome. If applicants submit test scores, colleges will take into account the SAT or ACT, and often Advanced Placement scores. But experts say admission officers don’t pay much attention to performance on the PSAT/NMSQT.

As for financial awards, the commendations don’t factor into need-based financial aid. They usually play a minimal role, or no role, in non-need-based scholarships, often called “merit aid,” that colleges use as discounts to lure admitted students to enroll.

The National Merit organization said some commended students may be eligible for corporate-sponsored awards known as “Special Scholarships,” but it did not have any data about how often they secure such awards. “Commended Student standing is not a requirement for entering the Special Scholarship program,” the organization said.

Many colleges consider SAT or ACT scores or other credentials in awarding merit aid. Many also target scholarships to National Merit winners, finalists or even semifinalists.

National Merit commendation is a less common magnet for scholarships, but it is not unheard of. Porter, the Youngkin spokeswoman, cited a Liberty University scholarship program for commended students.