April 7, 2019 Update:
We have received confirmations that the Commended score will remain at 212 this year. While this is bad news for students hoping that the cutoff might decline, some indications were that it would go up. My own estimates had it remaining at 212, but I would not have been surprised at 213. The flat Commended level does not change my Semifinalist estimates, which already factored in 212. It does, however, change the probabilities in a favorable direction. I had been expecting about half of state cutoffs to go up this year. Based on historical data, I now believe that it will be closer to 40%. This does not help in determining whether California, for example, moves to 224 — or 222, for that matter — because the factors that produce the 212 are different than those that impact California’s top-end scores. This is true of virtually all states. Still, it’s good news for students sitting right around last years’ Semifinalist cutoffs.
It is possible that the poorly constructed and oddly scaled October 24 PSAT had some impact on the Commended cutoff nationally — we will likely never know with certainty. If students scored lower on that exam, the state cutoffs would be influenced by the proportion of students taking that form code. The next round of hard information won’t come until the end of August when NMSC starts sending Semifinalist lists to schools.
As students in the class of 2020 receive their PSAT scores, the discussion among high-scorers usually turns to National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs. Unfortunately, the calendar used by National Merit means that students will not be notified by their high schools about their status until September of 2019. For a number of years, Compass has tried to bridge this 10-month gap by providing research and discussion on the most likely outcomes. We update this page as new information becomes available. Students can view our other National Merit pages here. The National Merit FAQ is recommended reading.
A common misperception is that there is something on the PSAT/NMSQT score report or in the explanatory materials that will help students determine whether or not they will be Commended Students or Semifinalists. No such information exists. Instead, students can use the National Merit Selection Index on the score report and the information below to assess where they stand.
National Merit Semifinalist Class of 2020 Estimates
|State||Class of 2020|
|Class of 2020|
|Class of 2019|
|Class of 2018|
|Class of 2017|
|Typical # of
|Alabama||216||214 - 218||216||216||215||225|
|Alaska||215||213 - 218||215||217||213||40|
|Arizona||220||218 - 222||220||220||219||300|
|Arkansas||214||212 - 216||214||215||213||140|
|California||223||221 - 224||223||222||221||2050|
|Colorado||221||218 - 222||221||220||218||245|
|Connecticut||222||220 - 223||222||221||220||185|
|Delaware||222||219 - 223||222||221||218||45|
|District of Columbia||223||222 - 224||223||223||222||50|
|Florida||219||217 - 221||219||219||217||810|
|Georgia||220||218 - 222||220||220||219||460|
|Hawaii||220||217 - 221||220||220||217||65|
|Idaho||214||213 - 216||214||216||214||85|
|Illinois||221||219 - 223||221||221||219||735|
|Indiana||219||217 - 221||219||219||217||335|
|Iowa||216||214 - 218||216||216||215||170|
|Kansas||218||216 - 220||218||219||217||155|
|Kentucky||218||215 - 219||218||217||215||215|
|Louisiana||217||215 - 219||217||216||214||210|
|Maine||217||214 - 218||217||215||214||75|
|Maryland||223||221 - 224||223||222||221||315|
|Massachusetts||223||221 - 224||223||222||222||345|
|Michigan||219||217 - 221||219||219||216||565|
|Minnesota||220||218 - 222||220||220||219||300|
|Mississippi||215||212 - 217||215||213||212||135|
|Missouri||217||215 - 219||217||217||216||335|
|Montana||214||211 - 216||214||214||210||50|
|Nebraska||216||214 - 218||216||215||215||100|
|Nevada||218||215 - 219||218||217||214||100|
|New Hampshire||219||217 - 221||219||217||216||75|
|New Jersey||223||222 - 224||223||223||222||520|
|New Mexico||215||213 - 217||215||215||213||90|
|New York||221||219 - 223||221||221||219||1010|
|North Carolina||220||218 - 222||220||219||218||440|
|North Dakota||212||211 - 214||212||211||209||30|
|Ohio||219||217 - 221||219||219||217||615|
|Oklahoma||215||213 - 217||215||216||213||185|
|Oregon||221||219 - 223||221||220||219||180|
|Pennsylvania||220||218 - 222||220||219||218||680|
|Rhode Island||220||216 - 221||220||216||217||55|
|South Carolina||216||215 - 218||216||217||215||200|
|South Dakota||215||211 - 216||215||215||209||45|
|Tennessee||219||217 - 221||219||218||218||325|
|Texas||221||219 - 223||221||221||220||1340|
|Utah||215||213 - 217||215||216||215||155|
|Vermont||216||215 - 218||216||217||215||40|
|Virginia||222||220 - 223||222||222||221||390|
|Washington||222||220 - 223||222||222||220||330|
|West Virginia||212||211 - 214||212||211||209||75|
|Wisconsin||216||214 - 218||216||217||215||330|
|Wyoming||212||210 - 214||212||213||209||25|
|U.S. Territories||212||211 - 214||212||211||209|
|Outside US||223||222 - 224||223||223||222|
|Commended||212||211 - 214||212||211||209|
Did scores on the October 2018 PSAT change significantly from those on the October 2017 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 2020. 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.
College Board does not report information for Selection Indexes, but it does reveal the number of students scoring in the 1400–1520 total score range. This range is useful in gauging upward pressure in scores—especially near the Commended level.
Both the percentage of test-takers and the absolute number of test-takers in the 1400–1520 score range increased this year. We expect the Commended level to fall at 212 or 213 for the class of 2020.
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 Mexico—as hypothetical examples—have absolutely no effect on the cutoffs in California or Florida.
Why do states have such different cutoffs?
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. 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.
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 tend to have more stable cutoffs than those with cutoffs near the Commended level. States with fewer Semifinalists represent almost all of the largest jumps.
Will this year be like all of the others?
National score changes from the October 2017 PSAT to the October 2018 PSAT are reminiscent of changes seen between 2016 and 2017. Last year saw all but one state cutoff staying within 2 points of its previous level. Overall, the upward movement of scores meant more states saw increases (20 states) than decreases (10 states). Twenty states had no change in cutoffs from the class of 2019. A similar outcome would not be surprising for the class of 2020.
So which states cutoffs will increase this year and which will move lower?
Historical data cannot answer that question, which is why it is so important that parents and students look at the estimated ranges rather than simply the “most likely” value. If this year is, indeed, like last year, that most likely value will be correct no more than 40% of the time.
The high-water mark is likely to remain at 223.
We believe that a 224 cutoff is a remote possibility. New Jersey is the state that has traditionally had the highest cutoffs, although it was joined at 223 by California, Maryland, and Massachusetts for the class of 2019. New Jersey has the highest probability of an upward shift in this group. A cutoff higher than 224 is, simply, not a possibility in any state or selection unit. The cutoffs on the redesigned PSAT reach a natural limit. There are few score combinations that can even produce 225–228 Selection Indexes and not a sufficient number of students hitting those combinations.
The “alternate” date of October 24 had a form with an extremely harsh scale. Will this impact cutoffs or National Merit eligibility?
Two test forms are never completely identical. To smooth out any variations, tests are equated. A slightly harder test will have a slightly easier scale, for example. The October 24 test, however, was a bizarre anomaly that was easier than any PSAT ever given. In short, College Board made a horrible test. In order to account for the easy questions, the scale had to be made particularly harsh. A single Math mistake lowered a student’s score from 760 to 710. A second mistake meant a 670. A single mistake in Reading or Writing lowered a student’s Selection Index by 4 points. It would be extremely unlikely that a student missing just 2 problems over 139 questions would qualify as a Semifinalist in the most competitive states.
If the October 24 form does give an unusual distribution of scores, won’t that change the state cutoffs?
Only about 10% of students take the alternate date. This means that the impact on the cutoffs as a whole will be muted. The impact on individual test-takers, though, could be profound. Because Semifinalist status is based entirely on PSAT scores, there is, at present, no means to redress any problems the October 24 exam may cause.
If I think that I’ll be a Semifinalist, do I need to take the SAT to qualify as a Finalist?
The class of 2020 is the first group of students that will be able to use ACT scores as “confirming scores” in the Finalist round of the competition. This is a long overdue change, as many high-scoring ACT students have had to take the SAT for no reason other than National Merit’s rules. This does not apply to members of the class of 2019, who must still take the SAT if they want to move from Semifinalist to Finalist status. We will be updating our National Merit FAQ as more information becomes available over the next year. We expect that students will need to earn a 31 or 32 to serve as a confirming score.
A note about comments
We try to respond to every question. Please note that there is a bug in the button to view older posts. A reader contributed the following hack: Put in the page # of the comments you would like to see: https://www.compassprep.com/national-merit-semifinalist-cutoffs/comment-page-29/, for example.