National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2019

By February 11, 2018National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

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.

StateClass of 2019
(Most Likely)
Class of 2019
(Est. Range)
Class of 2018
(Actual)
Class of 2017
(Actual)
Typical # of
Semifinalists
Alabama216214 - 218216215225
Alaska216213 - 21721721340
Arizona220217 - 221220219300
Arkansas214211 - 215215213140
California222220 - 2232222212,050
Colorado220217 - 221220218245
Connecticut221219 - 222221220185
Delaware221218 - 22222121845
District of Columbia223221 - 22422322250
Florida219216 - 220219217810
Georgia220217 - 221220219460
Hawaii219217 - 22122021765
Idaho216214 - 21821621485
Illinois221219 - 222221219735
Indiana219216 - 220219217335
Iowa216214 - 218216215170
Kansas219216 - 220219217155
Kentucky217215 - 218217215215
Louisiana216214 - 218216214210
Maine215214 - 21821521475
Maryland222220 - 223222221315
Massachusetts222221 - 224222222345
Michigan219217 - 221219216565
Minnesota220217 - 221220219300
Mississippi213211 - 215213212135
Missouri217215 - 218217216335
Montana214211 - 21521421050
Nebraska215213 - 217215215100
Nevada217214 - 217217214100
New Hampshire217215 - 21921721675
New Jersey223221 - 224223222520
New Mexico215213 - 21721521390
New York221219 - 2222212191,010
North Carolina219216 - 220219218440
North Dakota212210 - 21421120930
Ohio219216 - 220219217615
Oklahoma216213 - 217216213185
Oregon220217 - 221220219180
Pennsylvania219216 - 220219218680
Rhode Island217215 - 21821621755
South Carolina217215 - 218217215200
South Dakota213210 - 21521520945
Tennessee218216 - 220218218325
Texas221218 - 2222212201,340
Utah216214 - 218216215155
Vermont217215 - 21921721540
Virginia222219 - 223222221390
Washington222219 - 223222220330
West Virginia212210 - 21321120975
Wisconsin217214 - 218217215330
Wyoming212210 - 21321320925
​U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad223221 - 224223222
​U.S. Territories212210 - 213211209
​​Commended Student212210 - 213211209

 

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.

Why are score changes so much smaller at the high end?

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.

What, then, caused scores to rise for the class of 2018?

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.

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. 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.

Is it just my imagination or do PSAT scores bounce around more than SAT scores?

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.

Semifinalists — or prospective Semifinalists — may want to visit the Compass National Merit FAQ to understand more about the National Merit Scholarship Program and the steps along the way.

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.

2,909 Comments

  • Utah says:

    What are the chances for a 216 in Utah qualifying? >50%.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Utah,
      Right around 50% is my best estimate for now.

      • Linda says:

        What about a 217 in Utah – likelihood tha score t will make the cut off?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Linda,
          While I think that the majority of states will see cutoffs no more than 1 point higher than last year’s numbers, 2-3 point increases are a possibility. As one of the smaller states, Utah sees a bit more variability (high and low) than larger states. All of that means: I like your chances, but keep your fingers crossed.

  • Mrs B. says:

    Hi Art,

    Although I thought the PSAT would be the last standardized test my daughter would have to take during high school, it looks like she’ll be a semifinalist in our state (Alabama) and will need to take the SAT. She did well on the ACT and PSAT despite very little preparation and I’m wondering if the same level of preparation for the SAT will be enough to satisfy the National Merit semifinalist/finalist requirements. I understand that the SAT score is only one component for determining finalists so does a higher score on the SAT earn more “points” towards becoming a finalist. Thank you for your insight.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mrs. B,
      Since it sounds like your daughter would be happy to be done with standardized testing, one thing to consider is whether Finalist/Scholar status matters. Finalist status is announced too late in the admission process to be an admission factor in most cases. Depending on where your daughter hopes to attend college, Scholar status can mean a great deal or relatively little. I don’t mean to dismiss National Merit (I’m a big supporter of recognizing achievement), but I occasionally like to remind parents that only Semifinalist status will be known before applications are submitted. Semifinalist status is entirely dependent on the PSAT, and it sounds like that’s a given. The SAT “confirming score” requirement is only at the Finalist stage. It is all or nothing — i.e. a higher score does not increase a student’s chances (keep in mind that 90% of Semifinalist will become Finalists). I expect the confirming score to come in around the Commended level (if I were a student who wanted to be “safe,” I’d rest at a 214 SAT Selection Index). A higher SAT score *may* help a student move from Finalist to scholarship winner. As you probably know, your state’s university offers one of the best National Merit Finalist deals in the country. The University of Alabama considers Finalist status an automatic qualification for the scholarship, so a higher SAT score is unnecessary. On the other hand, a student competing for one of the NMSC-sponsored scholarships will face stiff competition. In that case, a higher SAT score is helpful — as is a higher GPA and a great essay — in distinguishing a student.

      Sorry for the long answer to a direct question, but I thought that a full explanation might be helpful to other readers.

  • Lilliana says:

    What are the chances of a 224 selection index for WA state?
    Thanks!

  • Maryland says:

    Any chance Maryland will increase to 223 for NMSF? Thanks

  • Utah says:

    What are the chances of 220 in Utah? Thanks!

  • Marie says:

    My son scored a 221 in Texas. What do you think his chances are?

  • C A M says:

    What about a 210 in Alabama? Interesting the student got a 33 composite on 1st ACT.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      C A M,
      A 210 might be Commended this year, although I think it will fall a bit short. Yes, some students perform better on the ACT. It sounds like that will be a better option.

  • Heather says:

    What are the chances of a 220 selection index qualifying for the state of Texas?

  • Steven says:

    What is the national merit commended cutoff for Oklahoma’s class of 2018. What is the prediction for 2019 for Oklahoma’s National Merit Commended?
    Thanks

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Steven,
      The Commended Student cutoff is set nationally. For the class of 2018, the cutoff was 211, and I expect this year’s cutoff to be between 210 and 213, with 212 being my “most likely.” Oklahoma’s Semifinalist cutoff is likely to fall around 216.

  • Maria says:

    When are the cut offs officially released for the October 2017 PSAT?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Maria,
      NMSC does not officially release cutoffs. Schools are notified about Semifinalists in late August. Students often don’t learn of their status until well into September.

      • VJ says:

        Hi Art,
        Why does it take almost a year after taking the test to announce semi finalist status? Do they offer the test abroad? Are juniors still taking it?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          VJ,
          The test is offered abroad, although only U.S. citizens or permanent residents are eligible for National Merit. Juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT in October.

          The system seems anachronistic, but there is little reason for NMSC to change. After all, students are not going to opt out because of the delay. In the winter, the organization is working to identify senior Finalists. In April, it starts working with schools to verify information about juniors. Since the organization notifies students via high schools, summer is out of the question.

  • M York says:

    Art, I hope you can direct our path to determine what, if anything, we need to do about changing our residency…or if it makes a difference. We were in Virginia last semester. Due to our family relocation, we (and she) is in Alabama. While in Virginia, our daughter sat for the PSAT. She scored a 221, which looks like it should be Commended nationally. As far as the NMSF, it appears that that could occur based on Virginia projected cutoff but it seems that it would be more likely in Alabama. Do we need to update her residency? Does it matter and if so, how do we do that? Thanks for your time.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      M,
      NMSC establishes residency based on where the student was in school at the time of the PSAT — Virginia, in your daughter’s case. I don’t think the chances are high that VA’s cutoff will go down this year, but I would be sure to follow this page (and I’m not just promoting it!) come end of August. Notifications will also usually happen via a student’s original school, so these sometimes get lost in the shuffle. You will want to stay on top of it. She will, at minimum, be Commended. Until during the Finalist stage, no communication happens directly between NMSC and the student, so there is no way to update residency directly.

  • MP in TX says:

    Hi Mr. Sawyer – What is your confidence level with a 222 SI in Texas for class of 2019? Thanks in advance!

  • Shital says:

    What are the chances of qualifying for National Merit with a SI of 216 for the state of Florida?

  • Ohio says:

    What do you think are the chances of a 220 in Ohio qualifying?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ohio,
      That’s the top end of my estimate range, so the chances are very good. In general, a handful of schools will fall outside of that range. I can’t guarantee that OH will not be in that handful.

  • mom Texas says:

    Now that National Hispanic Recognition Program scores have been released – does this impact any of your projections?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mom in TX,
      I finally had the opportunity to do a full analysis. I’ve got a mini-update at the top of this page, and you’ll want to see the full NHRP post. The bottom line is that there is not much movement, and I don’t think it has much predictive value for National Merit. If you are inclined to be an optimist, the Southwest’s cutoff went down 10 points this year. For a number of reasons, I don’t think the NHRP results tell us enough for an NMSF cutoff update.

  • Andy says:

    What are the chances that a qualifying score of 222 in Illinois makes it to the semi-finalist stage?
    Thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Andy,
      Extremely high. The only hesitation comes from the fact that IL has been transitioning from an ACT state to a P/SAT state. Still, I don’t think the state’s cutoff will reach 223 this year.

  • Jayne says:

    Hi,
    I was just curious if you had any updates based off the NHRP cutoffs.

    Thank you either way,
    -J

  • Texas Parent says:

    Art , any change to your predictions based on the NHRP cutoffs that have recently come out. Seems like they are a little lower than last year for the Southwest region. .

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Texas Parent,
      You are correct about the Southwest region, but — for several reasons — I don’t think this provides enough evidence to merit revisions of the Semifinalist estimates. You’ll find more details on an update to this page and on the NHRP post.

  • Ann Mary says:

    What do you think about a 216 in Tennessee?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ann Mary,
      I don’t know if we’ll see states moving down 2 points this year. It is not out of the question.

      • Ann Mary says:

        Thank you so much!
        My daughter received a 34 on the ACT. Should she take the SAT to hedge her bets in case it does drop 2 points?
        Also, at a minimum would she be in the Commended category?

  • Cynthia says:

    Do you feel we can count on D qualifying with a 221 in KS?

  • Parent living Abroad says:

    Sir

    We currently live in Europe and my daughter took the PSAT Oct 2017 and has a 222 score. What chances do you think that NJ will be a point lower then last year?

    A second question my son is a semi-finalist this year and we have not heard if he is a finalist or not is there any way to find this out? He asked the principal today but was told he hadn’t heard anything but he may have news for my son after the Break in March. Don’t know if it matters but my son had a 1510 on the PSAT and a 1560 on the SAT which he only took once. We assumed this would qualify him as a finalist were we wrong? Should my son have received notification by now?

    Thank you for any information

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Parent,
      While I think the most likely outcome is that the cutoff remains at 223, I’d say that there is a 25-30% chance that NJ will settle back to 222.

      Finalist notifications have been filtering in. The 1560 was well over any qualifying score needed (I am assuming that he did send a score report to NMSC). The most likely case is that the notification just hasn’t reached you yet — especially given your European address. You can call NMSC and see if they will give you any additional information.

  • Derek says:

    Good morning Mr. Sawyer,
    S scored a 222 on the PSAT residing in Wisconsin so we’re pretty confident that he’ll pass through as a semi-finalist. My question regards the qualifying SAT score for Finalist consideration. He took the SAT as a freshman back in ’16 and scored a 1410. His qualifying score is a 212 with a 710 in English/Reading and 700 in Math. He has already scored a 35 on the ACT and will be taking it again with his class soon. Is it even worth it to retake the SAT to “qualify” his PSAT or do you think that the 212 will be an acceptable qualifying score? Thanks for the information!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Derek,
      A 212 would probably be OK, but it won’t matter. NMSC accepts scores from fall of sophomore year through fall of senior year. Your son’s freshman year score does not serve as a confirming score (the logic of this is a little odd, since the score is more of an achievement in freshman year!). He’ll need to retake the SAT if he wants to qualify as a Finalist. The “is it worth it?” depends on what your son wants to get out of National Merit. For some students, Finalist status can mean tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship eligibility. For other students, the recognition is all that matters. Keep in mind that the February notification means that it is largely irrelevant for most admission decisions. I don’t think your son would have a hard time posting a qualifying SAT score.

  • CHARLOTTE says:

    Very helpful page. Looks like a 223 and 224 (twins) should be qualifying in CA, right? It will be sad around here if 224 is in and 223 is not.

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