The last two years have been unusual ones for National Merit. With the October 2015 PSAT, College Board introduced an entirely redesigned exam and scale, and the Commended Student cutoff came in at 209. The October 2016 PSAT resulted in even more changes: the Commended Student cutoff moved to 211, and Semifinalist cutoffs increased in forty-six of fifty states. [For a full review of how things played out, see the Semifinalist Summary for the Class of 2018. Our National Merit FAQ has more information about the overall process, and we have an in-depth selection of related posts.]
February 11 Update: Students eligible for the National Hispanic Recognition Program have been notified. Since initial NHRP qualification is based on PSAT/NMSQT scores, I am often asked how the results impact predictions for National Merit cutoffs. For the class of 2018, Compass has the qualifying scores for only the South and Southwest regions. For the class of 2019, we have all regions except New England. Optimists will note that the Southwest’s cutoff went down 10 points this year (NHRP uses PSAT Total Scores rather than the Selection Index). Pessimists will note that the South’s cutoff went up 10 points, which would translate to 1-2 SI points. Realists will note that NHRP scores — especially since they are neither state-based nor representative of the entire pool of PSAT-takers — are not good predictors. There is no clear trend, so NMSF cutoff predictions remain unchanged. See Compass’ NHRP post for details.
Will the class of 2019 see still higher cutoffs or will scores settle back to earlier levels?
Compass’ working hypothesis has been that the higher October 2016 scores are more representative of future results. The 2015 PSAT was a rushed effort, and College Board was still refining the SAT scale. After crunching the numbers for the current PSAT, we believe that the hypothesis is correct and that — at least on a national level — there may still be upward pressure on scores. Compass estimates that the Commended level could rise to 212.
The table below represents Compass’ best estimates for class of 2019 cutoffs. Although “most likely” cutoffs are provided, we recommend that parents and students consider the full set of possible outcomes in the estimated ranges. Historically, the Semifinalist cutoffs fall within the estimated ranges about 90% of the time when the Commended level is unknown. Extensive analysis is included below the table.
|State||Class of 2019|
|Class of 2019|
|Class of 2018|
|Class of 2017|
|Typical # of
|Alabama||216||214 - 218||216||215||225|
|Alaska||216||213 - 217||217||213||40|
|Arizona||220||217 - 221||220||219||300|
|Arkansas||214||211 - 215||215||213||140|
|California||222||220 - 223||222||221||2,050|
|Colorado||220||217 - 221||220||218||245|
|Connecticut||221||219 - 222||221||220||185|
|Delaware||221||218 - 222||221||218||45|
|District of Columbia||223||221 - 224||223||222||50|
|Florida||219||216 - 220||219||217||810|
|Georgia||220||217 - 221||220||219||460|
|Hawaii||219||217 - 221||220||217||65|
|Idaho||216||214 - 218||216||214||85|
|Illinois||221||219 - 222||221||219||735|
|Indiana||219||216 - 220||219||217||335|
|Iowa||216||214 - 218||216||215||170|
|Kansas||219||216 - 220||219||217||155|
|Kentucky||217||215 - 218||217||215||215|
|Louisiana||216||214 - 218||216||214||210|
|Maine||215||214 - 218||215||214||75|
|Maryland||222||220 - 223||222||221||315|
|Massachusetts||222||221 - 224||222||222||345|
|Michigan||219||217 - 221||219||216||565|
|Minnesota||220||217 - 221||220||219||300|
|Mississippi||213||211 - 215||213||212||135|
|Missouri||217||215 - 218||217||216||335|
|Montana||214||211 - 215||214||210||50|
|Nebraska||215||213 - 217||215||215||100|
|Nevada||217||214 - 217||217||214||100|
|New Hampshire||217||215 - 219||217||216||75|
|New Jersey||223||221 - 224||223||222||520|
|New Mexico||215||213 - 217||215||213||90|
|New York||221||219 - 222||221||219||1,010|
|North Carolina||219||216 - 220||219||218||440|
|North Dakota||212||210 - 214||211||209||30|
|Ohio||219||216 - 220||219||217||615|
|Oklahoma||216||213 - 217||216||213||185|
|Oregon||220||217 - 221||220||219||180|
|Pennsylvania||219||216 - 220||219||218||680|
|Rhode Island||217||215 - 218||216||217||55|
|South Carolina||217||215 - 218||217||215||200|
|South Dakota||213||210 - 215||215||209||45|
|Tennessee||218||216 - 220||218||218||325|
|Texas||221||218 - 222||221||220||1,340|
|Utah||216||214 - 218||216||215||155|
|Vermont||217||215 - 219||217||215||40|
|Virginia||222||219 - 223||222||221||390|
|Washington||222||219 - 223||222||220||330|
|West Virginia||212||210 - 213||211||209||75|
|Wisconsin||217||214 - 218||217||215||330|
|Wyoming||212||210 - 213||213||209||25|
|U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad||223||221 - 224||223||222|
|U.S. Territories||212||210 - 213||211||209|
|Commended Student||212||210 - 213||211||209|
Did scores on the October 2017 PSAT change significantly from those on the October 2016 PSAT?
The percentiles and average scores shown on the PSAT/NMSQT score report and in the Understanding Scores publication do not actually pertain to the class of 2019. All of the normative data are from previous class years. Instead of using these sources, Compass has turned to the score information made available to schools.
The average score for the class of 2019 declined 4 points from the 1019 total score seen for the class of 2018.
Average scores, though, do not give an excellent indication of what is happening at the high end of the score range where Commended and Semifinalists cutoffs are determined. More relevant are the results for students in the 1400 to 1520 score range.
Both the percentage of test-takers and the absolute number of test-takers in the 1400-1520 score range increased this year. The increase, however, was notably smaller than that seen the previous year. We believe that these results point to a Commended Student cutoff of 211 or 212 for the class of 2019, with our “most likely” estimate at 212.
National results do not determine the state cutoffs.
While there is a rough correlation between upward movement in the Commended level and upward movement in state cutoffs, it is not a one-to-one relationship. Additional students taking the PSAT in Illinois or more top scorers in New Jersey — as hypothetical examples — have absolutely no effect on the cutoff in California.
New Jersey (and, by extension, DC and U.S. students abroad) will continue to have the highest cutoff.
The high-water mark is likely to remain at 223. We believe that a 224 cutoff is a remote possibility, and a drop back to 222 is not eliminated. A cutoff higher than 224 is, simply, not a possibility in any state or selection unit. We believe that cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. A “lopsided” student has a much harder time of reaching a top SI. On the old PSAT, a strong math student might score a 720 CR, 800 M, and 720 W and reach an SI of 224. A top-notch verbal student could have a mediocre Math score and still reach 224 (800 CR, 640 M, 800 M). On the new PSAT, a perfect scoring EBRW student must now pair that performance with an excellent Math score to reach the same level (760 EBRW and 720 M). While it is possible that a state might eventually hit a 224 Semifinalist cutoff, we think it is unlikely.
The best estimate is still a weak bet.
Compass has repeatedly shown that, in the absence of definitive movement in the Commended level, the best estimate of a state’s future cutoff is the current cutoff. However, even that best estimate is only correct 28% of the time. The chart below reflects historical changes in cutoffs over the last decade (adjusted for the scaling change of the new PSAT).
Changes are not equally distributed across all states. High scoring states, in particular, have more stable cutoffs than those with cutoffs near the Commended level. The standard deviation for the cutoffs in the dozen highest scoring states (which also represent 4 of the 5 largest states) is approximately 1. The standard deviation among the lowest scoring states is approximately 2.
Large states see more stability than small states.
The 9 states that saw 3-point or greater increases for the class of 2018 had a total of about 1,100 Semifinalists. California, in comparison, has almost twice that number. Large numbers bring stability. The largest state seeing a 3-point increase last year was Michigan, which switched from being an ACT state to being an SAT state. Illinois has made a similar transformation, and there may still be some upward movement.
If the Commended level does increase by a point this year, does it mean that all of the estimates go up by a point?
Historically, a one point change shifts the curve slightly so that there is a toss-up — across all states — between no change and a 1 point increase. Since we expect the Commended level to remain the same or increase by a single point, we believe that the most common situation will be “no change.” As seen in previous years, we expect a lower likelihood of change in the highest cutoffs and in the largest states. A few states have “hand-tuned” estimates based on historical patterns. Understanding the inevitable distribution of changes can help students and parents better appreciate why Compass presents estimated ranges and why a “most likely” can be “best” and “weak” at the same time.
Even in this “up year,” only New Jersey saw a cutoff of 223 (cutoffs for DC and U.S. students studying abroad are based on the highest scoring state). Several more states were bunched up at 222. These results lend credence to the theory that cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. A “lopsided” student has a much harder time of reaching a top SI. On the old PSAT, a strong math student might score a 720 CR, 800 M, and 720 W and reach an SI of 224. A top-notch verbal student could have a mediocre Math score and still reach 224 (800 CR, 640 M, 800 M). On the new PSAT, a perfect scoring EBRW student must now pair that performance with an excellent Math score to reach the same level (760 EBRW and 720 M). While it is possible that a state might eventually hit a 224 Semifinalist cutoff, we think it is unlikely. Unless the test undergoes dramatic changes, we believe that it is impossible for a cutoff to ever reach 225.
Cutoffs increased for the class of 2017 and have now increased again. Will they keep going up? In both cases, the College Board played a larger role than did test-takers in overall score changes. There is not yet evidence that scores are on the rise for future years. In fact, we think it is the least likely case – although not by a large margin – when choosing among “no change,” “lower scores,” and “higher scores.”
Nationally, the ability levels of the top 16,200 students among 1.5 million NMSQT participants is relatively static over any mid-term window. The change for the class of 2017 was as expected as it was dramatic. The PSAT underwent a complete overhaul. The elimination of the guessing penalty and the reduction in multiple-choice answers helped “inflate” most scores. The shift from 200-800 scoring per section to 160-760 per section slightly lowered the top end.
There have been a number of theories to explain the increase in PSAT scores for the class of 2018. Test-takers for the 2016 PSAT had the advantage of additional practice materials, improved test preparation, and increased familiarity (many took the redesigned PSAT as sophomores in 2015). While any or all of these factors may have had some impact, Compass’ research points to PSAT scaling imperfections or irregularities as the more likely cause.
College Board’s goal is to make sure that PSAT scores from one year are comparable to PSAT scores in another year. It has not always met that goal. It faced a more difficult task than usual for the October 2015 and 2016 PSATs, because the scales were in flux and several PSAT problems had to be discarded as invalid. The fact that 46 of 50 states saw increased cutoffs and that PSAT scores increased for sophomore and juniors at essentially all ability levels means that student-specific factors such as increased preparation do not adequately explain the changes. The rise in cutoffs does not reflect an inexorable increase in scores. While cutoffs fluctuate from year-to-year, a longer view shows that there has not been a national trend toward higher scores. That claim cannot be made as universally at the state level. In-migration and economic growth help fuel competition for Semifinalist slots, which is why a state such as Texas has seen an upward trend over the last decade. Michigan is an example of where heightened attention to the PSAT can raise scores quickly. Even at the state level, though, it is unwise to focus on year-over-year changes as an indicator of future results.
Cutoffs vary across the country because the approximately 16,200 Semifinalists are allocated proportionally to states based on the total number of juniors in a class. The table at the top of the page shows how many Semifinalists from the class of 2016 were recognized 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.
It is not your imagination. While approximately the same number of students take the PSAT each year as take the SAT, there are crucial differences. Every student takes one of two PSAT/NMSQT forms on one of two dates in October (technically, there is a third, “alternate,” form and date). SATs have more dates, more forms, and students take and retake them throughout the year. The relative homogeneity of the PSAT means that it is highly susceptible to shifts, as there is no averaging out of differences. The size and direction of these shifts, though, cannot be predicted in advance. If they could be, College Board would take steps to prevent them.