National Merit Scholarship Bullies

Last Updated Feb 12, 2010 2:46 PM EST

High school students from New Jersey and Massachusetts have to be smarter than teenagers from North Dakota, Wyoming or West Virginia to win a coveted National Merit Scholarship.

It's simpler to become a National Merit contender in Arkansas and Mississippi than California or New York.

It's easy to see why the folks that run the National Merit Scholarship Corp. have been using what I consider to be heavy-handed intimidation to prevent people from knowing about this geographic discrimination. The scholarship outfit doesn't want people thinking that the high school students are brighter in some states than others.

And maybe that's why the National Merit Scholarship Corp. shamefully intimidated Nancy Griesemer, a college counselor in Virginia, who recently posted on her blog the cut-off scores necessary for students in individual states to qualify for merit scholarship consideration. On a state-by-state basis, there is a significant difference in the scores for the PSAT, which is the qualifying test that roughly 1.5 million teenagers take each year.

Griesemer told me that an attorney for the National Merit Scholarship Corp. demanded that she take down the scores from her blog and contended that publishing them was illegal. "I went through a couple of days of increased blood pressure and was truly frightened," the independent counselor said of the experience.

Because of the legal pressure, Griesemer, whose own son was a past National Merit Scholarship winner, kept the post up but heavily edited it and eliminated all of the PSAT score cutoffs.

The censors would have won, but the shaken Griesemer sought the advice of Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, an organization that is dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests.

Schaeffer made sure that thousands of high school counselors and college admission officers knew about the merit scholarship censorship by sharing the episode on a popular list serve of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He also posted the state cut-off figures on his own site. Schaeffer told me today that he had been spoiling for a fight and had lined up the nation's top copyright and free speech lawyers, who were ready to help. But he hasn't heard a "peep" out of the National Merit Scholarship Corp.

I did get the private scholarship company's side of the story. Eileen Artemakis, who is director of public information at the National Merit Scholarship Corp., says a percentage formula is used to make sure that students in all states are guaranteed recognition. "Sometimes people want to use the information to compare schools or states and it's not useful for that purpose," she maintained.

Artemakis also said the published scores weren't accurate, but she declined to provide a list. After his own research, Schaeffer said that he believes that all Griesemer's scores were correct except Nebraska and Colorado.

During the conversation, I asked Artemakis the obvious question. Was the censorship play really worth all the really bad publicity?

"This was a person (Griesemer) who purports to be helping students and with regard to our program was not. We felt we needed to be strong about that," Artemakis said.

"Going forward," she added," certainly it's hard to police the Internet."

For those who are interested, here are the states with highest and lowest PSAT qualifying scores:

States With the Highest PSAT Score Cut Offs

  • Maryland 221
  • Massachusetts 221
  • New Jersey 221
  • District of Columbia 221
  • Delaware 219
  • California 218
  • Connecticut 218
  • New York 218
  • Virginia 218
State With The Lowest PSAT Score Cut Offs
  • Wyoming 201
  • Nevada 202
  • North Dakota 202
  • Arkansas 203
  • Mississippi 203
  • West Virginia 203
  • Montana 204
  • South Dakota 205
  • Utah 206
Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for TheCollegeSolutionBlog. Follow her on Twitter.

National Merit Scholarship image by biskuit. CC 2.0.