National Merit Semifinalist Cutoffs Class of 2020

By December 3, 2018National Merit, PSAT
National Merit Semifinalists

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

StateClass of 2020
(Most Likely)
Class of 2020
(Est. Range)
Class of 2019
Class of 2018
Class of 2017
Typical # of
Alabama216214 - 218216216215225
Alaska215213 - 21821521721340
Arizona220218 - 222220220219300
Arkansas214212 - 216214215213140
California223221 - 2242232222212050
Colorado221218 - 222221220218245
Connecticut222220 - 223222221220185
Delaware222219 - 22322222121845
District of Columbia223222 - 22422322322250
Florida219217 - 221219219217810
Georgia220218 - 222220220219460
Hawaii220217 - 22122022021765
Idaho214213 - 21621421621485
Illinois221219 - 223221221219735
Indiana219217 - 221219219217335
Iowa216214 - 218216216215170
Kansas218216 - 220218219217155
Kentucky218215 - 219218217215215
Louisiana217215 - 219217216214210
Maine217214 - 21821721521475
Maryland223221 - 224223222221315
Massachusetts223221 - 224223222222345
Michigan219217 - 221219219216565
Minnesota220218 - 222220220219300
Mississippi215212 - 217215213212135
Missouri217215 - 219217217216335
Montana214211 - 21621421421050
Nebraska216214 - 218216215215100
Nevada218215 - 219218217214100
New Hampshire219217 - 22121921721675
New Jersey223222 - 224223223222520
New Mexico215213 - 21721521521390
New York221219 - 2232212212191010
North Carolina220218 - 222220219218440
North Dakota212211 - 21421221120930
Ohio219217 - 221219219217615
Oklahoma215213 - 217215216213185
Oregon221219 - 223221220219180
Pennsylvania220218 - 222220219218680
Rhode Island220216 - 22122021621755
South Carolina216215 - 218216217215200
South Dakota215211 - 21621521520945
Tennessee219217 - 221219218218325
Texas221219 - 2232212212201340
Utah215213 - 217215216215155
Vermont216215 - 21821621721540
Virginia222220 - 223222222221390
Washington222220 - 223222222220330
West Virginia212211 - 21421221120975
Wisconsin216214 - 218216217215330
Wyoming212210 - 21421221320925
​U.S. Territories212211 - 214212211209
​Outside US223222 - 224223223222
​Commended212211 - 214212211209
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.

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.


  • Louis says:

    Hi Cathy ,
    Are you certain about the score of 220 . The reason I ask is because my son also got almost the same as your son . He got all Match correct so 760 . He got one wrong in writing . They took 2 marks away from 38 , so his writing score went down to 36 . His reading he got 5 wrong , so his reading came down to 33 from 38 . So in the entire test he only got 6 wrong , 1 in writing and 5 in reading and none in Math and still he is only 214 . So a little surprised , how with one more correct it is possible.

  • Jola says:

    My daughter got 213 in CT . Does she have any chance to earn Semifinalist status?

  • Sidney says:

    Hi Art,
    My son’s PSAT (Oct, 2018) scored 1520 with a index score of 228 in the state of Massachusetts. He took SAT in Aug 2018 and the score is 1560 (800 M, 760 E).

    Do you think he will be able to make it to the Semi finalist? Does his SAT score high enough to serve as a confirming score?

    Thanks for the great article and all of your help!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, your son will be a Semifinalist. Congratulations! The confirming score is set nationally and will probably be in the 212-214 range (it is calculated in the same way as the PSAT Selection Index). Your son’s SAT score would give an SAT SI of 232!

  • Lori says:

    Great information! Thank you.
    I have twin Juniors who scored both scored a 221 (PA). I know it is a guessing game and it will be a long 8/9 months of waiting. However, I am curious as to what a confirming Score would be for the SAT (typically)? Also, would a test in November ’18 be allowed as a confirming score?
    Thank you again.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The confirming score is a national figure and usually falls right around the Commended level. So I expect something in the 211-214 range for the class of 2020. NMSC calculates a Selection Index for SAT scores in the same way that they do for PSAT scores. Yes, any SAT between October of sophomore year and December of senior year can serve as a confirming score. While a score only needs to be “good enough” to confirm for Finalist selections, a students’ SAT and ACT scores are considered at the scholarship stage. In other words, a 1440 might be just as good as a 1540 as a confirming score, but the 1540 is more likely to help at the NM Scholar level.

  • Louis says:

    Hi Art ,
    Would be be able to help me here . My son got a 1450 and combined index of 214 . So he is not going to be National scholar , but had a good chance to be in the commended scholar . But I am a little perplexe with the scoring . He got all questions right in Math so he got 760 . In EBRW he got only 690 . He only got 1 wrong in writing they took off 2 marks , so wring score dropped to 36 . He got 5 wrong in reading and they dedcucted 5 marks from 38 , so a 33 .
    So combined score 36+33 = 69 . So a mere 6 wrong took away 7 marks
    Math 38 , writing 36 , reading 33 , for combined = 214

    But last year he got 5 wrong last year in wringing an 6 wrong in reading and still got 690 with 11 wrong and still got reading 690 .
    And he got 3 wrong in Math and still got 750 .

    His combined score was 13 last year inspite of getting 14 wrong in all
    This year he only got 6 wrong in all and still only got 10 marks more than last year .

    Another parent here says that their child got 6 wrong and 1 wrong in writing and still got 220 .

    So a little confused would you be able to throw some light ?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      From the scale that you describe, I can tell that your son took the October 24 PSAT. That test has the most unusual scale that I have ever seen, and I have been doing this for 30 years.

      Tests are scaled (or equated) because they cannot all be identical. Ideally, you want to have a scale that fairly equates performance on one test with another. For example, if I find that a group of students miss 5 questions on Form A and 8 questions on Form B, then I would want to assign the same scaled score for -5 and -8. What happened in October is that the raw difficulty of the problems was very low. Students who might normally miss 5 or 6 math problems only missed 1 or 2. That means that College Board had to set the scales to make them equivalent. This left students with little room for error. Yes, they were taking an easier test, but that doesn’t mean that even the best students can’t make careless errors or get stumped by a single problem. On a well-constructed test, such minor errors wouldn’t have much impact. On the 10/24 exam, they did. The test your son took in his sophomore year was more typical in terms of difficulty and scaling.

  • Bryce says:

    Hi Art,
    Any chance a 1430 (710 ERW / 720 M) score in Vermont from October 2018 PSAT could qualify as semi-finalist? Thanks for your insights.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Those scores give a Selection Index of 214. Vermont’s cutoff last year was at 216. I only expect to see 1 or 2 states see 2-point declines this year, so a few things would need to fall your way. It’s more likely that you will be a Commended Student.

  • Sashi says:

    Hi! I got a 1480 (740 Reading/Writing, 740 Math) and a 222 Selection Index. Is this good enough to be a semifinalist from North Carolina? Thanks for all the help and service you are doing!

  • Ganesh says:

    Hello Art – Thank you very much for this informative site. We live in IL. My daughter got a NMSC selection index of 222. Last yer the cut-off for IL was 221. In scanning through the data for different states, I did not see a 2 point jump from 221 as basis. Even if IL scores go up, what are the chances that it will go up by 2 points?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You are correct that no state has jumped from 221 to 223 in the last 10 years. The closest we’ve come is Washington’s move from 220 to 222 in the class of 2018. Your daughter’s chances are excellent. The only reason I don’t say that it is a lock is that the sample size for high scoring states is fairly low. I feel much better about IL this year than last. It was still in transition to becoming an SAT state last year. At this point, though, I think that switchover is already baked into the 221.

  • Bharathi says:

    Hi Art:
    My sophomore daughter is at a boarding school in Connecticut – we live in Florida – and has taken the 10/10/18 PSAT with a 1480 with her SI estimated at 220. I know this is premature but how does this work for her when she takes the real one next year – will she considered with a cut off for Connecticut or Florida?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Neither. Boarding schools have special rules. If your daughter’s school is classified by NMSC as a “boarding school,” then students at the school must meet the highest state cutoff in the region (Massachusetts in the current year). If your daughter goes to a CT boarding school that primarily has students from CT, then she would need to meet the CT cutoff only. National Merit doesn’t consider where your daughter lives, just where she goes to school.

  • Chris says:

    I live in California, and I just received a 1490 PSAT score, with NMSQT index of 223. Do you think if there is any chance at all that I could be a semifinalist?

    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I definitely think you have a chance. I still think that it is more likely than not that CA’s cutoff will remain at 223. No, we can’t say that you are a lock.

  • Katie says:

    Hi, what are your thoughts on whether PA will stay at 220 this year giving the upward movement of the last few years? I have twins, one with a 223 index and the other with a 220. We are keeping our fingers crossed!
    Thanks in advance for any info / thoughts you have.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s hard to know whether or not the ticks upward really represent a trend. In general, upward movement becomes less and less likely at higher scores. I think it is close to a toss-up. I’m usually an optimist, so I think there are better than even odds that PA will stay at 220. Historically, PA’s cutoff was among the top 10-15 states. It regressed a bit with the classes of 2017 and 2018. It’s back to 15th in the class of 2019. The 10th ranked state, by comparison, is at 221. It’s very close.

      It would be wonderful if both your daughters could qualify. Fingers crossed.

  • Anju says:

    Hello Art,
    My son got 225 on PSAT in TX. My question is for SAT – he took SAT in August and scored 1560. He was not planning to take it again. Would he need more recent score to become a finalist?

  • Williams says:

    My granddaughter just received her scores, she’s a junior in FL. She received a 1220, an SI of 183.
    Is that good? Does she have a chance of being a Semi-finalist?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Her scores put her in the 84th percentile among test-takers. That’s definitely good. Semifinalist scores in Florida, unfortunately, fall in the 99th percentile.

  • Powell says:

    Do you think Georgia’state cutoff score will drop?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s a question of “might” versus “will.” We definitely can’t say that it will drop. I expect 10-15 states to see lower cutoffs this year, though, and nothing in the data leads me to believe that GA might not be one of those states.

  • Confused Dad says:


    Thank you for this incredibly useful information. My child is a junior (class of 2020) in Alabama and scored a 1470 with a 219 selection index. I would assume this puts her well within the range for Alabama. She also scored a 34 on the ACT as a sophomore. Should this meet the standard for a confirmatory score for a finalist? We are new to all of this but understand being a National Merit Finalist has big implications for college scholarships.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You’re welcome. It would require a highly unusual set of circumstances for 219 not to hold up in Alabama. Scratch that. It will hold up in Alabama.

      NMSC has yet to discuss ACT standards for confirming scores since it considers that problem to still be a year away. I can say with assurance, though, that a 34 will be high enough. Confirming SAT scores can be taken no earlier than October of sophomore year. If your daughter took her ACT in October 2017 or later, then she should be all set.

  • Manisha says:

    My son scored 1490 in 10th grade and 1450 in 11th grade in Virginia and the index is 217. Would they consider the 10th grade score?

  • Shlomo says:

    I received a 1480 on my Junior Psat with an SI of 221 in New York. Are my chances for being a NMSF good considering the New York cutoff has been at 221 the past two years?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      A large state such as NY is less likely to see big swings, but it is still susceptible to modest movements. In the last 10 years, for example, New York’s cutoff has gone up 5 times, gone down 3 times, and remain unchanged twice. I think your chances are better than even that it will remain where it is now (or lower).

  • Elizabeth says:

    My son received a 1450 and a 215 in NY. Should we just assume he’s out of the running? Thank you

  • Kris says:

    We live in TN and also took the 10/24 test. Index score was 216, missing a total of 5 questions. I think waiting 9 more months will be rough. Would you lean more towards yay or nay as making the cutoff? It would be helpful to have a realistic expectation no matter what your answer may be. Thank you so much.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The most honest appraisal is that none of us know for sure, since the 10/24 test is sui generis. My sense is that even with the added volatility it throws into the mix, it’s unlikely that TN’s cutoff will move down 3 points this year.

  • Kg says:

    My child earned a 1470 with an SI score of 221 and attends a department of defense school outside of the US.
    Do you have any data about cut off scores for DoDEA?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      A similar question came up last year, and I was not able to locate any information. I believe that the schools would be treated as international — in which case the cutoff would fall at the highest in the country — but I don’t know that.

  • Akash says:

    HI Art,
    I received 1490(222) and I live in Michigan. What do you think the odds are for me getting National Merit?

  • Betty says:

    Mr. Sawyer, My son scored SI 215 (730 EBRW and 710 Math) in CA. Does he qualify for semifinalists? he got 1530 in his SAT. if he qualifies in semifinalists, does he use SAT score as conforming score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      If he is at 215, I think you mean that he got a 710 ERW and 730 Math rather than the other way around (which would give an SI of 217). In either case, I’m afraid, he will fall short of NMSF in California.

  • Natalie says:

    Hi! I was wondering if a score of a 1480/220 had any chance of being nationally merit qualified in Connecticut. Would Connecticut ever go down 2 points?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      CT’s cutoff has been stubbornly consistent and probably will not go down 2 points. It was at 220 as recently as the class of 2017, but cutoffs across the board have bumped up since then.

  • Jordan says:

    Hi I live in Mississippi and made a 218 NMSC how likely is it that Mississippi could make a jump from 215 up to 219 ????

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Of the 500 data points over the last 10 years, only about 1% represent increases of 4 or more points. Of those, there is only 1 case involving a state as large as MS. I’d say that 499 out of 500 looks good.

  • Julie says:


    My son is homeschooled Junior in TX and scored 1440, SI 218 on Oct 9th. Could you give a % chance of his making the cutoff to semifinalist? Thank you for all of this data crunching- it gives us something to mull over while we wait!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mulling and data crunching are two of the things I like to do. Unfortunately, a 218 cutoff in TX would mean a 3-point drop. I don’t think we’ve seen that sort of drop in a large state, and definitely not without clear signs that scores nationally were moving downward.

  • Steve says:

    Hi Art, thanks for all the helpful analysis. Do you have any predictions for Virginia? My son got a 223. From reading your other responses I’m guessing a 2 point increase would be highly unlikely for our state?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      That’s right. One of my readers just pointed out that we’ve never seen a jump from 221 to 223, and I checked my numbers to confirm that 220 to 222 is the highest spot where a 2-point change has occurred. So 222 to 224? Sure seems unlikely.

  • Kevin says:

    Hi –
    First, thanks for this very informative article. I saw in an earlier comment that someone got a 1490 (740 M, 750 EBRW) which calculated to a SI of 224. My daughter just get her scores, and also got a 1490 (760 M, 730 EBRW), but only got an SI of 222. It sounds like reading and writing is weighted more than math? Unfortunately, we are in California, so it seems like she has no chance to be a semifinalist (missed it by that much!)…

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, NMSC doubles the weight of the ERW, so your daughter’s SI is calculated as 73×2 + 76 = 222. CA’s cutoff will probably remain at 223, but it’s not 100%. I won’t be surprised to see at least one 223 state move to 222.

  • Aly says:

    We’re in Colorado an my son scored 1470 with a selection index of 220. His score is 1 point below CO cut-off score from last year. What are the odds of him making making NMSF, knowing that a large school district (known for having high scorers) took the 10/24 test?

    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I expect 20-30% of states will see lower cutoffs for the class of 2020, so it’s possible that CO’s cutoff will see a decline. The 10/24 test is something of a wildcard. Unless a cache of data becomes available, I’m afraid that we can only speculate about the impact. It likely thins the ranks of scores in the high 220s if for no other reason than few score combinations pencil out to those Selection Indexes.

  • Lauren says:

    Hi Art,
    I am from Illinois and I scored a 1470 (220 on NMSC index), and I was wondering what your thoughts were on whether or not Illinois has the potential to see the NMSF cutoff go down from 221 to 220.
    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think that there is a state that hasn’t seen a decline in at least 1 year over the last 10, so I don’t consider any current cutoff a given. The national numbers I’ve seen make me think that things will be biased upward slightly this year, but that could still mean 10-15 states seeing lower cutoffs. If I were creating a betting line, I’d probably put an IL cutoff decline as a 4 to 1 underdog.

  • Carlos says:

    Hello Mr. Sawyer,

    Thanks so much for the information. We live in MA and our son’s index is 222. What’s your feeling on MA this year?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think it’s possible that at least one of the “223 states” will move back to 222 this year. It’s possible that MA is that one. It’s more likely, though, that the state’s cutoff will stick at 223. College Board no longer releases state-by-state data, so we don’t have MA numbers from which to project.

  • Laurie says:

    Do you know what the Missouri commended cutoff will be? Is it possible for a 1420 with an index of 210?

    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The Commended level is set nationally. Last year the cutoff was 212. Because we’ve seen a modest increase in 1400+ scores, I think the Commended level will be at 212 or 213 for the class of 2020.

  • Mary says:

    Hi Art,
    My son scored an SI of 216 in Maine, 720 Math and 720 EBRW. The cutoff last year for Maine was 217, what do you think the percent likelihood is that the SI for Maine will drop 1 point?
    I really appreciate your data and insight!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Maine only sees 70-80 Semifinalists each year, so it doesn’t take much to move the Semifinalist mark. I think 20-30% of states will see lower cutoffs this year. Those chances are probably applicable to Maine, too. Thank you for the appreciation!

  • Tiffany says:

    Hi, I am a student from Oklahoma and I received my PSAT scores yesterday and I got a 1440. Based on the predictions, I think I might be a Commended Scholar, but I am unsure if I am going to be a Semifinalist. I have heard that the cutoff is 50/50, but I am unsure of the chances that I will be a Semifinalist. Do you think I have a small chance of making it?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your 1440 could map as several different Selection Index scores (you’ll find the SI on the National Merit portion of your score report), so I’ll generalize. If your SI is at 215 — Oklahoma’s current level — then you are right that it’s probably 50/50 for Semifinalist. Your odds improve to 70-80% if you are at 216. The ERW score has twice the weight of the Math score, so if your 1440 is 720 ERW / 720 M (SI = 216) or 730 ERW / 710 M (SI = 217), then your chances look pretty good.

  • Deb says:

    Thank you for this blog. So helpful. My son scored a 1500 (750/750) with a score of 225 in MA. I think he made the semi-finals because the cut-off score should not rise above 224 for MA. Am I correct in this thought?

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