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National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2021

By August 28, 2020 National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

August 23 Update: CUTOFFS ARE OFFICIAL

The Semifinalist cutoffs for the class of 2021 (October 2019 PSAT) have leaked early this year [thank you to those who alerted me to it]. They reflect the largest decline we have ever seen — a result of College Board’s inability to maintain consistent difficulty and scaling across multiple test forms. All 50 states have lower cutoffs for the class of 2021 compared to the class of 2020. As we learned in April, the Commended cutoff fell from 212 to 209. What is somewhat surprising is how sharp the difference is between the highest scoring states and everyone else. Of the 10 states at a cutoff of 221 or higher for the class of 2020, 8 saw only a 1-point decline. Illinois and Texas were the exceptions, with 2-point declines. The average decline among the other 40 states was 2.7 points. This implies that PSAT scaling was more problematic in the 700 range than it was at the very top of the scale, which is somewhat surprising. Students in the class of 2022 can find information and speculation about the October 2020 PSAT here.

Students may not receive notice of their Semifinalist status until mid-September. Notifications were mailed to schools on August 25th. NMSC asks schools not to make the names public until the press release date (usually the second week in September). Many schools interpret this to mean that they are allowed to notify students privately prior to the release; other schools prefer to wait until names are released to the media (September 9th, 2020). NMSC will not confirm a student’s status until the press release date. Finalist applications are not due until October 7th.

Due to the pandemic, ACT and SAT scores will not be required or considered for Finalist standing. NMSC has posted the 2021 Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists.

StateClass of 2021
(Actual)
ChangeClass of 2020
(Actual)
Class of 2019
(Actual)
Class of 2021
Semifinalists
Class of 2021
Commended
Alabama212-4216216227120
Alaska212-12132153611
Arizona218-1219220295511
Arkansas212-221421414063
California221-122222319427235
Colorado217-3220221270399
Connecticut220-1221222194644
Delaware219-122022245105
District of Columbia222-122322328184
Florida216-32192198791242
Georgia219-12202204561021
Hawaii217-221922063119
Idaho214-12152147877
Illinois219-22212216941735
Indiana215-3218219340406
Iowa212-321521616273
Kansas214-4218218143134
Kentucky214-3217218205165
Louisiana212-3215217233113
Maine213-22152177248
Maryland221-12222232961057
Massachusetts222-12232233411579
Michigan216-3219219542723
Minnesota218-1219220288549
Mississippi211-321421514129
Missouri214-3217217332289
Montana210-42142144710
Nebraska213-321621610358
Nevada215-3218218112100
New Hampshire215-321821972103
New Jersey222-12232235942560
New Mexico211-221321510225
New York220-122122110352880
North Carolina217-2219220494882
North Dakota209-3212212280
Ohio215-3218219681748
Oklahoma211-321421518039
Oregon217-3220221182298
Pennsylvania217-32202207211165
Rhode Island216-22182205058
South Carolina212-3215216197103
South Dakota209-5214215360
Tennessee215-4219219332352
Texas219-222122114413448
Utah212-321521515786
Vermont212-42162163317
Virginia221-12222223691612
Washington220-12212223431030
West Virginia209-3212212620
Wisconsin213-3216216314214
Wyoming209-3212212160
​U.S. Abroad222-1223223103528
​U.S. Territories209-3212212270
​U.S. Boarding Schools****180666
​​Commended209-3212212

Eligible students receiving a Selection Index at or above the cutoff for their state are named Semifinalists and can apply to be Finalists. Students scoring at or above 209, but less than their state’s cutoff, are named Commended Students. Boarding school cutoffs are set regionally at the highest state cutoff within a region.

An Unprecedented Change

Earning a score high enough to be named a National Merit Semifinalist is not an easy feat — only about 1% of test takers achieve it. Producing a test and a scale that can distinguish among such high-scoring students is also not an easy feat. Changes within individual states can be caused by shifts in demographics or participation or chance. When large-scale shifts occur, though, it is almost always attributable to imprecise test construction. A single wrong answer on the October 2019 PSAT could have lowered a student’s Selection Index by as many as 4 points or as few as 1 point depending in which section the error occurred and which test form the student took.

This year 28 states saw a decline of 3 or more points in their Semifinalist cutoffs. In the next most volatile year in recent memory (2013), only seven states saw a change of that magnitude. The average decline this year was almost a full point more than the previous record holder.

A Bounce-back for the Class of 2022?

Because large swings are due to unusual test forms, an up or down year is often followed by a settling back to the overall trend. We would normally expect to see the same thing occur with the October 2020 PSAT. However, we’ve never seen a PSAT during a pandemic before. And many schools won’t see a PSAT at all. We’ve created a short (and speculative) post to discuss what might happen with National Merit for the class of 2022. You can also see a complete history of Semifinalist cutoffs for the last 13 years.

Confirming Scores and Finalist Status

Given the cancellations of the SAT and ACT, many class of 2021 Semifinalists are concerned about earning the confirming score required to move from Semifinalist to Finalist. Class of 2021 Semifinalists would normally need to earn a high enough score on the SAT (or a concordant score on the ACT) between August 2018 and December 2020. NMSC has not yet announced any changes to its plans or timeline. Semifinalists do not receive access to the online application portal until mid-September. We may know more at that time. For more information about the Finalist stage, please see our National Merit FAQ.

 


The commentary below was published prior to the release of the official cutoffs.

The Decline in High Scores

A key statistic we look at is the number of students scoring at or above 1400 in Total Score. College Board does not report more granular data or information on Selection Index distribution. But the 1400+ figure is a useful indicator of where the Commended Student cutoff will fall. [Commended is now confirmed at 209, and all Semifinalist cutoffs are in the table at the top of the page.]

Large changes have happened in the past. The jump in 1400+ scorers from the class of 2017 to the class of 2018 was, at least, predictable. The class of 2017 had to contend with the rollout of the new PSAT and a questionable exam. For the class of 2018, the Commended cutoff went up two points, and only Rhode Island saw a lower cutoff.

In the years since, there have been increasing numbers of students achieving 1400+ scores, and Commended cutoffs have inched upward. Things reversed course dramatically on the 2019 PSAT. The class of 2021 has 49,749 students in the 1400–1520 range (as reported in mid-Dec by College Board)—even fewer than the 55,587 in the class of 2017. As we expected, this led to a 209 Commended cutoff.

What evidence is there of the relationship between national and state changes?

The drop in the Commended cutoff does not mean that state cutoffs will all move in lockstep. I expect most states to see declines of between 1 and 4 points. It’s possible that some states will see no change, which is why last year’s cutoff is the upper bound of most of our estimated ranges.

The table below summarizes 12 years of Semifinalist cutoff changes. It shows how cutoffs at the state level have corresponded with the national Commended cutoff. For example, there was 1 year in which the Commended cutoff declined by 2 points. In that year, 17 states had cutoffs that were unchanged. Only 1 state saw a higher cutoff.

The table gives insight into what might happen when nationwide scores decline. In the 6 years in which the Commended level changed by 2 or more points—up or down—there are 300 data points from the 50 states. Only 6 cutoffs (2%) moved in the opposite direction of the Commended change. These 6 have all been states with a low number of Semifinalists. I don’t expect any large state to see an increase this year. I expect the vast majority to see lower cutoffs.

Update: Now that we know the Commended cutoff fell 3 points, I am more convinced than ever that few, if any, states will see an upward movement. It is likely, in fact, that 40-45 states will have lower cutoffs this year.

We have also analyzed a sample of anonymized 2018 and 2019 PSAT data from high schools. The school data gives us insight to the very top of the range (220+). The data confirm our hypothesis that even the highest-scoring states will see declines. The dataset is not diverse enough for us to use it to predict specific cutoffs.


Below are excerpts from our original post, with annotations where our new knowledge has reshaped our conclusions.

Why do we emphasize ranges?

The only predictable thing is unpredictability. Over the last 12 years, cutoff changes have shown a roughly normal distribution. The catch is that there is no way of predicting where on the curve an individual state will fall. Compass has also found that there is a wider spread of cutoff changes in smaller states (defined as the 16 states with the lowest number of Semifinalists).

The chart demonstrates two things. First, we can’t be assured that any estimate of a cutoff will be correct. There are always changes in the mix. Second, the best estimate is “no change.” [We now have firm reason to believe that cutoffs will decline this year, so the Most Likely figures have been adjusted downward.ed.]

On average, about 60% of cutoffs hold fast or go down. A given year, though, is rarely average. Below is a chart showing the number of state cutoffs that have gone up, remain unchanged, or gone down in each year. [We now believe that the changes for the class of 2013 will look something like those we saw for the class of 2013. –ed.]

The class of 2018 saw increases in 46 states; the class of 2020 saw an increase in 1 state! Which kind of year do we expect for the class of 2021? [We now know exactly what kind of year it was, with all 50 states showing lower cutoffs.]

Everything we think percentiles tell us about National Merit is wrong.

College Board’s percentile reporting falls somewhere between misleading and wrong. First, the percentiles prominent on students’ PSAT reports are for a “Nationally Representative Sample.” The sample reflects the hypothetical results if every student in a class year took the PSAT. The College Board also reports the PSAT/NMSQT User percentiles (found only on a student’s online report or in Understanding the PSAT/NMSQT) based on students who have actually taken the PSAT. These figures are lower than the Nationally Representative figures, since the PSAT-taking group has a higher proportion of college-bound students. However, the User percentiles are for the class years of 2018, 2019, and 2020 and not for the class of 2021. The percentiles reported by College Board do not reflect the results of a single student who took the October 2019 PSATs. We could also quibble about the fact that percentiles are rounded or that not all test-takers are eligible for National Merit or that no percentiles are provided for the Selection Index, but the fact that percentiles are not shaped in any way by student results from this year’s PSATs immediately disqualifies them from consideration.

Will the harsh scales alter the Semifinalist cutoffs?

Students missing a single question have always scored high enough to be Semifinalists, and that will be true again this year. On some test forms, just two missed questions has been able to take a student below the cutoff in the most competitive states. The table below shows the impact of two incorrect answers on a student’s Selection Index for the 2018 and 2019 PSATs. The PSAT is given on a primary date and an alternate date each year. Anywhere from 80–90% of students test on the primary Wednesday date. 

Comparing the impact of incorrect answers on Selection Index across test forms

Reading

Writing

Math
 Oct 16, 2019
(Primary)
Oct 30, 2019
(Alternate)
 Oct 10, 2018
(Primary)
Oct 24, 2018
(Alternate)
-10-1222225225219
0-1-1224223227219
-1-10222222226220
-200222224226222
0-20222220226222
00-2225226226219

In college admission, the difference on the SAT between a 730 ERW and a 740 ERW is trivial. On the all-or-nothing PSAT/NMSQT, however, small changes can prove significant. The Semifinalist cutoff for New Jersey was 223 last year. Even with a perfect Math score, a student would have still needed an ERW score of 740 or better to be named a Semifinalist. The ERW score receives twice the weight of the Math score, so errors can prove costly.

Why do test scales vary?

In theory, a more challenging scale exists only to offset an easier test. The scaling done on the PSAT is different from what a classroom teacher might do to determine that a certain percentage of students will receive As, a certain percentage will receive Bs, and so on. PSAT scaling is designed to take into account the small differences in difficulty between test forms. In recent years, however, we have seen large swings in test difficulty on both the SAT and PSAT. Last year’s alternate date PSAT saw an historically easy Math section and correspondingly harsh scale. While this year’s scales aren’t quite as bad as the October 24, 2018 scale, they are steeper than usual. The steep drop—particularly at the high end of the scale and particularly on the ERW—may end up lowering cutoffs for the class of 2021. As more data becomes available, we expect to better test this thesis. The impact is more likely to be seen on the highest cutoffs. By the time scores reach the expected Commended range, scale fluctuations tend to be less important.

Have things always been this bad?

No. Two trends have created the knife’s edge we saw last year and expect to see again this year. Elite students are stronger testers than they were a decade ago, and changes to the PSAT have made the test easier. On the 2008 PSAT, a California Semifinalist could have missed 8 or 9 questions. On the October 24, 2018 PSAT, a student would have needed to miss no more than a single question. We don’t yet know, of course, how students will fare this year.

Why do states have such different cutoffs?

Cutoffs vary across the country because the 16,000 Semifinalists are allocated proportionally to states based on the total number of graduating seniors in each state. A state’s cutoff is derived by finding the score that will produce, as closely as possible, the targeted number of Semifinalists. Students in any given state are competing only against fellow residents. The test is national; the competition is local. Boarding school students are a special case and must meet the highest state cutoff in their region.

What about the Commended cutoff?

The Commended student cutoff is set nationally, so it is the same for all participants.

Where can I learn more?

We regularly update this page and try to answer all questions in the comments. Our National Merit FAQ has the most detailed explanations on the steps in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

5,679 Comments

  • Avatar Tammy says:

    Hi,

    Any idea when they will notify the commended scholars? My son got a 211 but we have not heard a word. Thanks.

  • Avatar Claudia says:

    Art,
    My son got his August SAT score E:710, M:800. This is his alternate test. We live in Colorado, I believe this is a SI of 218 . I think this qualified him as SF, but we didn’t hear from school yet. Is my SI calculation correct for alternate test score?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Claudia,
      Your best bet is to call NMSC directly at this point and find out for sure. (847) 866-5100 Your calculation looks correct.

      • Avatar KG says:

        Hi Art,
        I’m confused, isn’t semifinalist status decided by PSAT score and not the SAT score? The above person has mentioned August SAT score of E 710 and M 800. I wonder why.

        • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

          KG,
          I mistakenly left off another post by the parent explaining that the student’s PSAT was cancelled last October and was granted alternate entry by NMSC. This allows students to enter the competition with an SAT score. Because PSAT scores are capped at 760, the NM calculation for SAT scores is also capped at 760. So the student had an SI equivalent to 71×2 + 76 = 218.

    • Avatar Kellen says:

      I am a current National Merit Scholar who took the alternate route and can help you if need be 🙂

      • Avatar Claudia says:

        Hi Kellen,
        My son took the SAT on August 29, NMSC has his score (as they told me) but, they don’t know how long it will take to notify schools because there is only one person in charge of this 🙁 My son is applying for colleges that give good aid to NMSF, but he still needs to wait until confirmation.

        When did you take the alternate test and how long did you wait for your school to notify you?

  • Avatar Lydia says:

    Is it a bad sign that the high school has not notified us at all? Student in CT has an index score of 224. Shouldn’t the student qualify as semifinalist? We have reached out to the counselor and administration. Who else can we ask?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Lydia,
      NMSC will give you confirmation: (847) 866-5100. What they won’t give you, AFAIK, is the letter with the login credentials your student will need. But at least you’ll know that you need to keep bothering the school.

  • Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Hi! Thank you for the great information. We live in Pennsylvania and my daughter scored 217, which looks like she made the cutoff, however, when she checked again today, her school counselor told her that they haven’t heard anything from NMSC. Any advice?

  • Avatar Tuan Tony says:

    Thanks Art,
    Thank you for your great article. Your cutoff predictions/announcements are spot on for Texas. PISD has finally made their semi list public on 9/15. Not sure why all the unnecessary delay but the district went from 120 semifinalist in 2020 to 103 in 2019 – quite a drop. My daughter makes to the semi. Now time to gather all the necessary requirements for the next step – Wasting the whole week bc all the delay, LOL!

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Just happy to hear that you finally got word. Congratulations to your daughter! If you have the chance to pass along the essay prompt for this year, I’d like to update my resource.

  • Avatar marion says:

    Is there any way to see a list?

  • Avatar Michael says:

    Art,

    I have twins in Texas with scores of 223 and 219, so it looks like they’ll both make it. Still no official word. The difference in SI is all due to one additional question missed in the reading section. Pretty crazy how tight it is.

    I am actually writing to just thank you for all the information you’ve provided this year. It’s helped me navigate the process with a much higher level of understanding. Well done.

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      Michael,
      Congratulations x 2! Thank you for the kind words. Yes, the swings were crazy this year. It’s good to hear that both of your students made the cut.

      Needless to say, this has been a chaotic year for schools; I’m sure you’ll hear soon. I’d recommend reaching out to the counselor if you haven’t heard anything by Monday. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone publish the full Texas list this year.

  • Avatar AJ says:

    Art,
    I was notified by my counselor that I had been selected as a National Merit semifinalist, but I have not received any communications from National Merit. Should I be worried?

    • Avatar Art Sawyer says:

      AJ,
      Congratulations! Nothing to worry about. National Merit does not send students anything directly at this stage. Your counselor will be getting you details and instructions for logging into the portal for Finalist applications. It’s extremely common for counselors to share the good news immediately before having a chance to get each student the information. If you haven’t heard more from the counselor by Monday, you might want to check in.

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