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The PSAT and National Merit for the Class of 2022

By September 24, 2020October 5th, 2020Featured, For Students, National Merit, PSAT

COVID-19 has created chaos in SAT and ACT testing since March. Now the PSAT is being swept up into the vortex, as well. The PSAT will not be cancelled on a national basis, but it is being cancelled at many schools, and the cancellations are particularly high in states or counties with continuing stay-at-home orders. Below we examine the potential impact on the National Merit Scholarship Program for the class of 2022.

Is College Board making any changes?

Rather than seeing the PSAT cancelled outright, College Board is trying to provide schools with additional options. It recently added a January 26th, 2021 test date and allows high schools to offer the test on any or all of the 4 PSAT dates (10/14, 10/17, 10/29, and 1/26). Students may only take the PSAT once in their junior year, and high schools determine when the test will be given.

Will the PSAT be fair if it is offered on so many dates?

The PSAT has suffered from underinvestment by College Board. The exam has seen far more discarded questions per test, for example, than the SAT. The reduced difficulty and score range on the PSAT also make it hard to differentiate the elite National Merit students. This has led to unfortunate swings in scores based on which form code a student is given. If College Board needs to provide extra form codes for a slate of winter PSATs, we would expect to see more problems arise.

Can October and January results be compared for National Merit?

Students taking the January test will have a slight advantage versus early testers. Skills tend to improve with time, and even several months can make difference in PSAT scores.

Does this mean National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs will be higher for the class of 2022?

Not necessarily. January testers will be only one factor. The overall number of test-takers will also matter, and we expect to see fewer students taking the PSAT this year. The same number of Semifinalists is allocated to a state whether 100 students take the exam or 100,000. The allocations are made based on historical figures of high school students within the state. Of course the cutoff will be much lower if 100 student take the test instead of 100,000. Lower testing could lead to lower scores.

The rules NMSC uses for determining  how many students can take advantage of Alternate Entry through submission of SAT scores will also impact scores. The more lenient the rules this year, the more likely cutoffs will go up. Students submitting SAT scores have a greater ability to prepare and to repeat testing.

Fluctuations in test difficulty and scaling drive the most wide-scale changes in most years. We know that scores for the class of 2021 were unusually low because of a flawed test form, so we would normally expect a “bounce-back” in cutoffs this coming year. Overall, I am expecting modest improvements in SAT score that will not necessarily be consistent from state to state.

Why doesn’t College Board just cancel the PSAT?

The PSAT matters to College Board for several reasons. First, approximately 3.5 million students take the test each October, with many of those exam fees paid by schools or states. Second, the PSAT is an entry point for the SAT. It has long been an advantage for College Board in its competition with ACT. Third, the PSAT is a rich source of student data that College Board sells to colleges. Parents with older children are familiar with the flood of mail from colleges once PSAT results are in. Most students opt-in to the Student Search Service when they register for the PSAT and include targeting data valuable to colleges. Interests, intended major, self-reported grades, and college preferences are just a few of the data points that College Board collects — in addition to the PSAT score itself. Colleges can purchase the list of students most relevant to their institutions. A small liberal arts college, for example, can avoid marketing to future engineers interested in attending a large university. The PSAT plays a useful role in the matching function — a role that is lucrative for College Board.

Would the National Merit Scholarship Program itself be cancelled for the class of 2022?

This seems improbable given that there are alternatives. Even an unfortunate situation of a limited number of students in a state being able to test is not unprecedented. In “ACT states,” it’s not uncommon to see a much lower proportion of schools offering the PSAT. It would be an unpopular decision, but NMSC might decide to simply ignore students who were not able to test.

Alternate Entry to National Merit

Every year students miss the PSAT for legitimate reasons — a storm closure, for example, or illness. In these cases, National Merit has allowed students to seek approval for Alternate Entry — essentially, taking the SAT instead of the PSAT. The scale of cancellations this year, however, could overwhelm National Merit’s normal procedures. Alternate Entry on a wide scale would also exacerbate the problem that the PSAT and SAT are different tests with different scales. In theory, a 750 on one exam is meant to represent a 750 on the other. In practice, it is far less simple. If National Merit also allows students to use an ACT for Alternate Entry, the problem grows even worse. Fairness becomes a real issue when students are taking different tests at different times. Still, some form of Alternate Entry may be the least bad option.

In the past, allowances for alternate entry were “because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance, but meets all other requirements for NMSC program participation.” NMSC has told at least one school district that tests cancelled due to the pandemic would be an extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, if a school simply decides not to offer the PSAT, a student may not automatically have a claim to an alternate entry. The student must get sign-off from both their high school and NMSC.

Isn’t it unfair if students in one state can test while those in another cannot?

In the Semifinalist competition, students are only competing against other in-state students. This means that there is no reason to expect that cutoff changes will be uniform. If 98% of a state’s students are able to test, there might be no impact on the Semifinalist cutoff. If only 20% of a state’s students are able to test, we would expect the cutoff to fall dramatically. A lower cutoff, of course, doesn’t help the 80% of students not able to test. National Merit clearly faces some difficult choices.

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.


  • Mia says:

    Collegeboard sent out an email to admins today that they will offer an additional PSAT/NMSQT on Tuesday January 26, 2021

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you, Mia. I’m going to update the post. I want to make clear to readers that it will be up to schools as to whether or not they offer the test in January.

  • Archana says:

    Thank you so much for the information. You have most reliable information i can find. Was so helpful for my son and luckily he was National Merit Finalist and I am heavily depending again on this site to access my daughter who is Junior this year.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      That’s wonderful news about your son. Thank you for the kind words. I’ll be here again once PSAT scores start coming in!

  • Jim says:

    If a large percentage (say, 80% as in your example) of a state’s Class of 2022 population were unable or unwilling to take the PSAT this year, and assuming those 20% who take it are the more motivated students from schools that prepare for and hold the PSAT in high enough regard to make sure the test occurs, wouldn’t the state NMSF cutoff go up to reflect a more competitive pool of test takers?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The apportionment of NMSFs is based on approximate high school population and not on test takers. So if a state normally sees 200 Semifinalists, they will still see around 200 Semifinalists. There will just be fewer students competing for those spots. You’re right that the 20% may be disproportionately motivated, but there would still be plenty of potential qualifiers out of the mix. This all depends on how likely schools are to offer the Jan PSAT and how accommodating NMSC is about alternative entry.

  • Richard Barker says:

    1 – The PSAT is graded on a curve (and therefore the selection index is on a curve),
    2 – The number of test takers is substantially lower for the class of 2022 (and a finite number of them would have been NM semifinalists),
    3 – The number of NM semifinalists is based on graduating students in each state (and therefore, relatively fixed),
    …shouldn’t we expect the cutoff selection index scores to go down?

    Of course, the complication to that logic is the substantial increase in alternate entry applications. Seems like the NMSF and CB would be wise to keep selection index cutoffs stable this year and balance the number of students qualifying via the traditional entry and alternate entry. All speculation and guessing, of course.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Yes, with caveats. First, last year’s cutoffs were abnormally low. We would have expect a bounce-back this year of 1-2 points in most states. So if a state’s cutoff goes down by 1-2 points because of lower number of test takers, the net change might be 0. The bigger caveat is that we don’t know the PSAT volumes by state. I know how devastated CA was in both October and January, but it is impossible to predict exactly in each state. Some areas were able to have a large number of test takers. We are likely to see some large drops in some large states — something that rarely occurs. Alternate Entry is something of a wild card. NMSC’s stated policy is not to use scores from alternate entrants to set cutoffs. This will mean it is more likely cutoffs will decline and that NMSC will need to recognize more students.

      I had wanted to get data from the October PSAT before updating the post. My update is now live.

  • Steven says:

    I am planning to turn in my SAT score for alternate entry- what do you think will be the minimum score for competitive states like California(where I live) to qualify as a semifinalist? My score is a 1550, 750 in E/W and 800 in M

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s a complex issue, and I just updated the post to discuss it. For the purpose of Selection Index, your Math score is capped at 760. Your Selection Index is (2)(75) + 76 = 226. That will qualify in California.

  • Ramneek says:

    Do you know when the score cut-off for the scholarship qualification will be released? I am taking the PSAT in January.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Semifinalist decisions are not announced until September. We usually find out about the cutoffs a week or so before the official announcement.

  • Jean A. says:

    My son’s school has yet to return to hybrid or in-person learning. They had rescheduled the PSAT for 1/26/21 but that was also just canceled. Are there any other ways he could continue to be considered for National Merit in the absence of taking the PSAT or SAT (he has taken the ACT). Would they consider a spring date? Thank you.

  • Kathy says:

    I just wonder about the index calculation for SAT score from Steven’s example (2)(75) +760 = 226. The 750 E/W is out of 800 for SAT, but 750 for PSAT is out of 760. Don’t 750 in SAT and 750 in PSAT have different weights and the weight should be taken into consideration? Otherwise it will be more unfair for the PSAT taking students?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      No, the 750’s are weighted identically, because College Board calculates that they represent the same level of achievement. Whether we believe that to be true or not, there is no way to fairly calculate an alternative.

  • sandy says:

    HI, I plan on taking a couple of SAT exams between March’21 and June’21. Do I get to choose the highest SAT score and submit it for the alternate National Merit entry or do you advise me to just take one SAT exam so I don’t end up being disqualified if NMSC sees that I have 2 SAT scores?
    Also, from your experience, out of the March, May, and June SAT exams, which one do you think I have a better chance of scoring higher? (ie, either least competitive or easier test from past trends.) Thank you so much for posting such great info.

    Thank you.



    • Art Sawyer says:

      NMSC will use your highest scores. Whether you choose to send only your highest score or let NMSC do it for you, the result will be the same.

      Tests are not scaled based on the other students who take that exam. There is no advantage to one date or another except your own preparedness. That’s not to say that all exams are identical, there is just no correlation with test date. Taking the test twice sounds like an excellent plan. You’ll also have the March results before the May and June exams.

  • Rick says:

    I understand that a 99% overall *national* ranking on the PSAT may not qualify you for National Merit Semifinals because you may still not rank high enough in your *state* to meet the cutoff in September. In California do you usually need to get a 99% on both the Verbal and Math parts to make the cutoff, so a 99% Verbal and 98% Math with a score of 218 won’t be enough? The 218 does make one eligible for the National Merit Finals competition, but I suspect that it will fall just short of qualifying for the SemiFinals.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Percentiles are terribly misleading for National Merit. As you identify, the national figures say little about a highly competitive state such as California. Also, the percentiles are rounded figures from 3 historical years (2017 – 2019). A 99th percentile score can represent anything from the top 98.5% of scores to the top 99.49% (any higher becomes 99+). The lower end of that scale represents 3 times as many students as the top end. The bottom line is that you did very well on the PSAT. Unfortunately, it may not be quite well enough to qualify as a Semifinalist in California.

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