UPDATE 2/8/2016: I predicted in this post that Mississippi's cutoff score would be 204. Apparently the Selection Index percentiles that the College Board released were based on a National sample rather than a User sample. Not sure why they have done this, other than perhaps to make people feel better, but if true then the cutoff will be higher than 204. A good guess might be at least 206, and my guess is now 207; and it could be higher.
Another problem is that the College Board does provide some score percentiles based on what they believe to be a typical sample of test takers. However, it has become more common for students to "prep" for the test, and I suspect their sample doesn't include any hyper-prepared test-takers. The PSAT at present is a very poorly designed test. Hopefully they will work out the problems in the future.
In past years I’ve written quite a bit about the PSAT/National Merit Test. This is the test juniors can take each October as practice for the SAT. In addition, for a lucky few it’s a chance to earn National Merit Semifinalist status, which usually goes on to become Finalist status.
Earning National Merit Finalist status can be financially rewarding. Depending on where one chooses to go to school, it can be worth anywhere from $0 to $2,000 to $200,000. It can be a life-changing event, as I’ve described in many previous posts.
There were some huge changes in the test this year, and the College Board has not handled the transition very well. Students were a month late in getting their scores, and some students still don’t have them. And since the test and scoring scale is entirely changed, nobody is really sure what a “good” score is. The College Board is going back to the old scoring method for the SAT, but just to confuse things they’ve topped out the PSAT with a 760 on each section instead of an 800. And the National Merit Selection score will go back to being calculated with math making up only one-third of the Selection Index but one half of the PSAT score. Understood?
With this chart we can now start to answer the question parents and students have been wondering: “Did my score qualify for National Merit honors?”
And the answer is printed on the chart at right. There were approximately 1.5 million participants, and 50,000 – or three percent – will be honored with at least commended status. If the College Board chart is right, then students who scored a 200 or above will earn Commended status.
Figuring the state cutoffs is more difficult, but it’s not impossible to make a good guess. Each state has a separate cutoff score designed to recognize the top one percent of scorers in that state. The result is that in some states students scoring in the 96th national percentile might get Semifinalist status while kids going to boarding school or in Massachusetts or California would require a score around the 99.7th percentile. All we have to do is look at what percentile a state’s past cutoff scores have been and then see what percentile corresponds to that percentile on the most recent Selection Index chart.
For example, Mississippi’s cutoff score has been rising pretty dramatically over the past 10 years, in part because a number of large school districts have added year-long prep classes to the curriculum. In 2008 Mississippi’s cutoff score was 201 and the national Commended cutoff was 200. So a score that was just barely above the 97th percentile was enough for Semifinalist status.
Last year, Mississippi’s cutoff score was 209 – the highest ever – which tied our state with Alabama, and put us ahead of or equal to 16 states, which was quite an accomplishment for a state used to being on the bottom. That score of 209 put Mississippi square in the middle of the 98th percentile scores, and probably represented a 98.4th percentile if I were to guess.
And by the way, while this post addresses Mississippi PSAT scores, any state which has had cutoff scores below the 99th national percentile ought to be able to get a good idea of where the Class of 2017 cutoff will be. Look at past trends, look at the percentiles, and just hone in on a number.
So now it’s time to look at the chart at right. A cutoff score of 205 is the lowest score in the 99th percentile, and I find it highly likely that Mississippi’s cutoff will be 205 or lower. The same goes for Alabama. Below that things get a bit trickier. The test was poorly designed, so the percentiles drop quickly, with only three scores in the 98th percentile instead of the usual five to seven. I think a score of 203 would correspond with last year’s cutoff.
So the bottom line is that students with a 202 on the PSAT have some chance at Semifinalist status. A 203 is equal to last year, so who knows? A 204 is better. A 205 is in the 99th percentile, and really ought to be enough. And Mississippi (or Alabama) kids with a 207 or higher ought to be making their college visits with the assumption that they will be named Semifinalists.
One requirement to advance from Semifinalist to Finalist status is to make a confirming score on the SAT. Any student with even the slightest chance of earning Semifinalist status should go ahead and take the SAT as soon as possible. On the old SAT a score of 1960 was required to be considered for Finalist, which was roughly the 91st percentile. In other words, they are just making sure people didn't cheat on the lower-security PSAT. Take the SAT early so that if you have a bad test day you can take it again.
My prediction is that the Mississippi cutoff score for the class of 2017 will be 204. The good news for Oxford High School is that after a couple of kind of slim years they may produce a record number of Semifinalists; there are a lot of kids with really good scores. One of those is highly likely to be my son, and I offer him both prayers and congratulations.
Official announcements aren’t made until September. Will any of these children have fingernails left?
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