Scott Stephens, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 12, 2008
It’s nice to have one.
It’s great to have two.
Three is a very good year.
But six National Merit Scholars from one senior class?
Only one other Ohio school had that many—St. Xavier High School, a Catholic school in Cincinnati. Beyond that, no school—public or private—had more than three.
That’s not all of it: Shaker this year had 11 National Merit semifinalists, 19 National Merit commended students, two National Achievement semifinalists, three National Achievement commended students, and one National Hispanic Scholar.
Freeman said a culture of learning that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school is one big reason. Even in early grades, youngsters talk about what college they hope to attend. Freeman said he wasn’t surprised to find that most of the students achieving honors had attended Shaker schools their entire academic careers.
Students vying for the scholarships are evaluated on grades, the difficulty of the classes they took, their standardized test scores and participation and leadership in school and community activities. They also have to write an essay describing their interests and goals, and they need a recommendation from a high school teacher, counselor or administrator.
Nobody disputes the notion that the scholarships winners are among the best and the brightest American high schools have to offer. But some maintain that the National Merit Scholarship Corp., a privately funded, nonprofit company which has run the program since 1955, could improve the process to make it fairer for poor and minority applicants.
Eligibility for the award is based solely on scores on the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) exam. Of the more than 1.3 million 11th-graders who take the exam each year, about 16,000 are chosen as Merit semifinalists. Because test scores are closely linked to social and economic factors, such as family income, many students are at a disadvantage before they pick up a pencil, critics say.
“It pours scholarship money into the hands of kids from well-to-do families,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a group that opposes heavy reliance on standardized testing.
Schaeffer said the program uses different PSAT cut scores—the minimum score needed to make the grade—for different states to ensure geographic balance, but has done nothing to address charges that the SAT practice test is racially biased.
“They’ve stubbornly maintained that it’s a neutral test,” he says. “They say geographic equity matters, but racial and gender equity do not.”
Officials at the College Board, which administers the PSAT, say the exam is a valid indicator of merit. The criticisms reflect wider problems in education, not with the test or the competition, they argue.
“The National Merit testing has been reliable and valid, and that’s not been the case with many of the more recent testing programs,” Freeman said. “It’s designed with a high ceiling—you just don’t pass it with a low score. As far as testing programs go, it’s valid.”
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