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Money Makes the World Go ‘Round – A Brief History of the PSAT-NMSQT

The PSAT/NMSQT is not an ordinary standardized test. As the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship, the PSAT/NMSQT is the Cerberus that guards the gates to a $2,500 scholarship and a host of other desirable perks – a head start in the admission process, the prestige of being a National Merit Scholar, and sometimes even full scholarships to certain universities. When it comes to money, the rules are different; when it comes to money, everyone wants their piece of the pie. Unlike the SAT, whose changes have always been content driven, the PSAT/NMSQT, for better or worse, evolved around financial stimuli.

Act I: Introduction
The National Merit Scholarship Program began in 1955 as a privately funded scholarship program that rewarded outstanding academic achievement. In 1971, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation adopted the College Board Preliminary SAT Examination (PSAT) as the qualifying test for the scholarship exam, and the PSAT/NMSQT was born. On that glorious day, the skies shone bright and blinding cobalt, illuminated by the glorious fury of the heavens themselves as they descended to earth to bless the birth of the chosen trial.

Act II: The Asian Invasion
For about ten years, the PSAT/NMSQT lived a quiet and simple life. But the world was going through profound economic and societal transitions, and our hero soon found himself swept away by the waves of change.

Between the end of World War II and the early 1980s, Asian immigration to the United States exploded. During the space race of the 1960s, America, led by a young and charismatic President Kennedy, made its technological leaps into space, and the United States’ land of opportunity became particularly fertile, attracting immigrants from all over Asia, including India and China. The United States has even recruited foreigners, going so far as to increase immigration quotas for those with advanced degrees in math and science. The Indians, soon followed by the Chinese, rushed to apply.

As Asian immigrants began to settle into American life, their children began to work their way through the school systems. Eventually, these children from immigrant families – who excelled in math – began to take the PSAT/NMSQT and, despite often significant disadvantages in the verbal section, they would do well enough in the math section to warrant consideration for a scholarship. . .

Coincidentally, around this time, the College Board decided to give the PSAT/NMSQT a facelift to increase its total score from 160 to 240 – double counting the verbal score. As you can imagine, with this change, getting a qualifying score has become much more difficult for a certain group of individuals. No changes were made to the format or content of the PSAT/NMSQT — the length of the verbal section and the difficulty of the questions remained the same. This change disadvantaged some ethnic groups (guess which ones) whose primary language may not have been English for consideration of national merit. Fortunately, this scoring system didn’t last forever; in 1997, another group of individuals challenged the PSAT scoring system and initiated a redesign of the test.

Act III: A Despised Woman
In 1994, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) filed a lawsuit against the College Board and Educational Testing Services, accusing them of unlawful discrimination against women. Statistically, men outperformed women at the time on the PSAT/NMSQT, and FairTest claimed the cause of the disparity was the format of the test, which was allegedly biased 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 test bias. Statistics indicated that women traditionally outperformed men on writing tests, so the addition would supposedly help alleviate the inherent bias in the exam.

At the time of the complaint, the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT consisted of only two sections, math and verbal. Both tests were similar in format and contained similar issues created by the same people, but the PSAT/NMSQT was the focus of the complaint. The PSAT/NMSQT is directly related to money, so it naturally took precedence over its sibling test. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Regardless of what – test merit or scholarship money – actually prompted 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 everything. You can take this to the bank. The PSAT/NMSQT flies under the radar of many high school students and their parents, but why? As a transition to a great scholarship and a number of other cool benefits, it’s no wonder people are so upset about it. Shouldn’t you be too?

* post-gazette.com/pg/09111/964303-84.stm

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