National Merit: A Scandal

Several Virginia schools have faced criticism after not promptly presenting National Merit Scholarship recognition to students. Current investigations are underway to determine the cause of  the delays, reparations for the students, and necessary changes going forward. Students in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun have been impacted. 

     The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition awarding scholarships and recognition to high school students with qualifying PSAT/NMSQT scores. Out of an estimated 1.5 million entries, only around 50,000 students with the highest scores qualify and are notified by the high school as a semifinalist or commended student. The semifinalists can then compete to be one of the approximately 7,250 finalists to receive a National Merit Scholarship.

 With this competitive selection process, semifinalists must be quickly made aware of award status in order to submit the necessary information before admission deadlines. When students from several Virginia schools were not told in a timely manner of award eligibility, difficulties were faced in progressing with the competition. Now, despite these schools’ insistence on the delays being unintentional, there are questions about whether factors of discrimination were involved, as many schools with high minority populations were affected. 

     Governor Glenn Youngkin explained why he thinks awards may have been withheld, stating, “[Awards] have been withheld for the purpose of not wanting to make people feel bad who didn’t achieve it.”  Youngkin has initiated an investigation with the Attorney General, Jason Miyares, to determine the reasoning behind supposed withholding of National Merit Scholarships. 

     Woodgrove Principal Dr. William Shipp states, “This is my eleventh year at Woodgrove, and there has never really been a timeline [for semifinalists] that has been given, especially for commended students.” Shipp emphasized, commended students don’t have a timeline as they are inelligible for scholarships. In addition, Shipp gave a recommendation for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. “I would much prefer if National Merit notified the families directly.”

Woodgrove Counseling Director Ms. Geri Fiore explains the National Merit process,“It starts when Dr. Shipp receives a letter and the student is called down to meet with him and myself. We have to log into the system and get them their access codes, so that we can start the scholarship. They have to do the bulk of the work, but we work in tandem.” The process is fluid, so the students and administration team have to work quickly to get the application in. “From there, they go through the process on their own. They find out if they’re finalists or semifinalists, and there are other smaller scholarships they could be awarded.” 

     This year, Woodgrove had one National Merit Scholarship winner, Senior Moses Zhang, and three commended winners: Seniors Nathaniel Sonak, Maddy Jones, and Kayla Wilf. Woodgrove notified all of their students in the appropriate time frame, but some feel procedural improvements could be made, such as notifying parents.

     Sonak said, “One thing they missed was notifying parents. So I think that was something in the Fairfax lawsuit that parents were not notified, and it’s one thing Woodgrove failed to do.” Jones agreed, saying, “[My parents] and I didn’t know what it was. I felt like if it was important they would have notified parents.” The lack of parental notification was the main source of confusion for these Woodgrove students.

     Students dedicate hours of their lives to get recognized by the National Merit Society, and it’s important they get properly honored by their schools. Changes to how National Merit students are informed and recognized seem imminent, which may affect Woodgrove.