The PSAT/NMSQT is no ordinary standardized test. As the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship, the PSAT/NMSQT is the Cerberus that guards the gates to a $2500 scholarship prize and a slew of other desirable benefits — a leg up in the admissions process, the prestige of being a National Merit Scholar, and sometimes even full scholarships to certain universities. When money is involved, the rules are different; when money is involved, everyone wants a slice of the pie. Unlike the SAT, whose changes have historically been content-driven, the PSAT/NMSQT, for better or for worse, has evolved around financial stimuli.
Act I: Introduction
The National Merit Scholarship Program began in 1955 as a privately funded academic scholarship program that rewarded outstanding scholastic achievement. In 1971, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation adopted the College Board’s Preliminary SAT exam (PSAT) as the qualifying test for scholarship consideration, and the PSAT/NMSQT was born. On that glorious day, the sky blazed a brilliant, blinding cobalt, alight with the glorious furor of the heavens themselves as they descended to earth to bless the birth of the chosen test.
Act II: The Asian Invasion
For about ten years, the PSAT/NMSQT lived a quiet, simple life. But the world was experiencing sweeping economic and societal transitions, and our hero soon found itself being swept away with the tides of change.
Between the end of World War II and the early 1980s, Asian immigration into the United States exploded. During the Space Race of the 1960s, America, led by a youthful and charismatic President Kennedy, made its technological leaps and bounds into space, and the United States’ land of opportunity became especially fertile, attracting immigrants from all over Asia, including India and China. The US even recruited foreigners — going so far as to increase immigration quotas for people with advanced degrees in math and science. Indian people, soon followed by the Chinese, rushed to apply.
As Asian immigrants began settling into American life, their children started making their way through the school systems. Eventually, these children of immigrant families — who just happened to excel at math — began taking the PSAT/NMSQT, and, despite oft-substantial disadvantages in the verbal section, they would perform well enough on the math section to warrant scholarship consideration.
Coincidentally, around this time, the College Board decided to give the PSAT/NMSQT a face lift to raise its total score from 160 to 240 — by counting the verbal score twice. As you might imagine, with this change, getting a qualifying score became significantly more difficult for a certain group of individuals. No changes were made to the format or content of the PSAT/NMSQT — both the length of the verbal section and the difficulty of the questions remained the same. This change put certain ethnic groups (guess which ones) whose primary language may not have been English at a disadvantage for National Merit consideration. Luckily, this scoring system didn’t last forever; in 1997, a different group of individuals took issue with the PSAT scoring system and instigated a revamping of the test.
Act III: A Woman Scorned
In 1994, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) filed a complaint against the College Board and Educational Testing Services, accusing them of illegally discriminating against women. Statistically, males outperformed females at the time on the PSAT/NMSQT, and FairTest claimed that the cause of the disparity was the test format, which was allegedly skewed in favor of male students*.
As a result, in 1997, the PSAT/NMSQT went under the knife for some more work, and when it emerged, the verbal score no longer counted twice; instead, the College Board added a writing section designed to address the test’s bias. Statistics indicated that women traditionally outperformed men on writing tests, so the addition would supposedly help mitigate the inherent bias of the exam.
At the time of the complaint, both the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT consisted of only two sections, math and verbal. Both tests were similar in format and contained similar problems created by the same people, but the PSAT/NMSQT was the focus of the complaint. The PSAT/NMSQT is directly connected to money, so it naturally took precedence over its sister test. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Regardless of what — the test’s merit or the scholarship money — actually motivated FairTest’s complaint, the result is a more balanced test that more equitably awards scholarship money to promising young students of both sexes each year.
Act IV: Conclusion
Money changes the game. You can take that to the bank. The PSAT/NMSQT flies under the radar of many high school students and their parents, but why? As the segue to a nice scholarship prize and a number of other great perks, it’s no wonder people are so up in arms about it. Shouldn’t you be, too?
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