No merit scholars; students ‘tested out’

Published 12:28 am Sunday, October 2, 2011

Warren County for the second year in a row has no National Merit Scholarship finalists, and educators offer mixed reasons.

The 56-year-old program is a private scholarship competition that accepts more than 1.5 million applicants annually, of which about 10,000 winners are chosen for three types of awards totaling more than $51 million, National Merit spokesman Matt Budreau said.

To enter, high school juniors must take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which examines reading, math and writing skills.

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In the first round of cuts, about 16,000 students are named semifinalists. About 15,000 advance to the finalist round. From there, about 8,300 are awarded merit scholarships and another 1,300 who did not make the finalist round are awarded other scholarships.

Pat Winters, a Vicksburg High School guidance counselor since 1995, believes one reason for the lack of local contenders is students are “over-tested.”

“We don’t have many students taking the PSAT,” she said. “These kids are all tested out.”

Public high school students take state-mandated Subject Area Tests, as well as the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. Private and parochial school students are not require to take the state exams.

At the parochial St. Aloysius High School, 10th- and 11th-graders are now required to take the PSAT/NMSQT, said Michele Connelly, principal since 2005 and a guidance counselor for six years before.

“We are competing with schools nationwide that are utilizing their time preparing for the PSAT,” she said. “We recognized that and, this year, we ordered PSAT (test-preparation) material.”

The PSAT preparation classes are not required at St. Al, Connelly said, but she hopes students will take advantage of them. PSAT reviews are not offered at the two public high schools — Vicksburg and Warren Central — or at the private Porters Chapel Academy. Also, the PSAT is not required at Vicksburg, Warren Central or Porters Chapel.

Carla Smythe, Warren Central guidance counselor for nine years, pointed out that the PSAT’s minimum Selection Index score, which determines the National Merit semifinalists, varies from year to year according to the number of students tested and their performance.

“We usually have students who come in one point below the minimum score,” Smythe said.

Lynn Baker, PCA’s guidance counselor and former headmaster who has more than 40 years of education experience, said, “In many areas, (PSAT/NMSQT) is not emphasized as much.”

The 2009-10 academic year was the last to see National Merit semifinalists from Warren County — Bradley P. Scurria, a senior at Warren Central, and Avery Burrell, a senior from Vicksburg attending St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland.

The last time PCA had a semifinalist was 1997, Baker said. The last time VHS and St. Al had one was in 2009.

The PSAT is aligned with the SAT college entrance exam, an alternative to the ACT most used in the Midwest and South. The SAT is used more for admittance to East and West coast schools. Students here are offered both, Winters said, but most take the ACT.