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What National Merit awards do and don't tell us


A reader emailed me the following message recently about a story we ran last week about the local National Merit semifinalists. That story reported that there are 18 semifinalists from Lawrence schools this year: 11 attend Free State High School; five go to Bishop Seabury Academy; and two are at Lawrence High School.

Here's what the reader asks:

I have heard from so many LHS parents who are very upset LHS is so far behind in the number of National Merits this year. Is this always the case? Is LHS really that far behind FSHS academically? Are the schools nearly the same percentage free and reduced lunch? People are moving from the LHS district and I'm told the realtors in town encourage people to move north of 15th. Has LHS has reached a tipping point?

The point of the story was that these are 18 exceptional students – although certainly not the only exceptional students in Lawrence – and those students deserve to be congratulated. Still, it never ceases to amaze how some people can find the darkest of dark clouds behind any silver lining.

The simple answer to the reader's last question is no. LHS has not reached any kind of “tipping point” academically. And seriously, if any realtor out there is marking down homes in the LHS attendance zone because they think it just isn't up to snuff, send me your listings. I know a lot of folks in Topeka and Kansas City, Mo., who might - might - be willing to take those troubled assets off your plate.

According to the state's Building Report Cards, LHS does have a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students than Free State. So, not surprisingly, the percentage of students scoring below state standards is slightly higher at LHS.

But let's look deeper at the National Merit numbers to see what the really do, and don't, tell us.

Free State had 11 National Merit semifinalists out of 366 students in its junior class. LHS had two semifinalists, out of 393 students in its junior class. Combined, that's 13 out of 759 students. If those semifinalists had been divided evenly between the two schools, there would have been seven students in one school and six in the other.

So, the most you can say is that for some reason, Free State has four or five more National Merit semifinalists than it would have if both schools were exactly even. That's four out of 759, a variance of 0.5 percent.

That tells us nothing about the relative academic quality and rigor of one school versus the other. Any number of factors could explain that variance, most having nothing to do with the schools themselves, starting with pure random chance.

Also, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not award semifinalist status on any purely objective basis. It's a combination of achievement, geography and population. Every state is allocated a certain number, based on that state's share of the national senior class population.

So it's entirely possible – in fact, likely – that some Kansas students who didn't make the cut would have done so easily if they lived in, say, North Dakota (small population) or Mississippi (lower average achievement). Likewise, some Kansas students here who did win the designation might have been crushed in the competition if they lived in states like Minnesota or Massachusetts.

But let's look even more broadly. Each year, U.S. high schools graduate about 4 million seniors. At any given time, you can line those students up and rank them from top to bottom, using whatever yardstick you choose. No matter what, there will always be a top 1 percent, a bottom 1 percent, and a middle 98 percent. And it's a mathematical certainty that only 1 percent of all students will ever make it into that top 1-percent bracket.

In other words, there's a 99 percent probability that your kid won't be among them.

Only a fool would think they could increase the odds of getting their kid into the top 1 percent just by moving a few blocks across town in Lawrence, Kan., to a neighborhood where a handful more of those top 1-percenters are already clustered. Genius isn't a virus. It doesn't spread by casual contact.

The true measure of a school is how it teaches all 100 percent of its students. Does the school offer a well-rounded curriculum? Does it have strong leadership and effective teachers? Does it offer a safe and supportive environment for all students that's conducive to learning? Does it have extracurricular activities that enhance learning, build character and develop maturity? Do teachers go out of their way to help the kid who wants to learn but is struggling?

If the answer to most of those questions is yes, then stop worrying, and stop discounting the value of your house. If you want to help your kids succeed, spend more time with them. Talk to them about their schoolwork. Find out where they're having problems, and work with their teachers to help them get past it.


amac 4 years, 8 months ago

Peter Hancock, Your article of last week stated: "Of the roughly 16,000 semifinalists nationwide, about 15,000 will be named as finalists in February, based on their academic record, participation in school and community activities, demonstrated leadership abilities, employment, and honors and awards received."

It is my understanding the National Merit recognition is based SOLEY on the students' PSAT scores. I'd love to know a bit more about that. thanks.

Peter Hancock 4 years, 8 months ago

Each year, there is a predetermined number of semifinalist designations to be handed out. They are distributed to all 50 states and D.C. in proportion to their share of the nation's total number of graduating seniors. So, if Kansas has 1 percent of the senior class population, it gets 1 percent of the semifinalist designations. Those, then, are given to students based on their PSAT score.

Once a student is named as a semifinalist, there is a lengthy application and evaluation process. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation says about 90 percent of all semifinalists will become finalists, so we can assume the vetting process weeds out about 10 percent. Toward the end of their senior year, actual award winners are named.

Chris Golledge 4 years, 8 months ago

Not sure if the rules are still the same, but I was a semifinalist (a long time ago), and did not make the cut to finalist because of lack-luster grades.

Scott Morgan 4 years, 8 months ago

amac, the application process involves everything academic, extracurricular, plus outside school achievements. Often parents do not wish to complete the lengthy process. Just the letters of recommendation can be very time consuming.

avoice 4 years, 8 months ago

If you're a parent concerned about your child obtaining a college-preparatory education in the middle and high school years, the best question to ask the school (or your realtor) is whether they can show you these numbers over the past five years: 1) How many graduating seniors have successfully enrolled at a college or university - count junior colleges but do not count trade schools if you really want to see what the potential is that your student will be prepared to make it past their freshman or sophomore year toward a bachelor's degree. 2) How many graduates have actually earned a bachelor's degree at any institution of higher learning. If the high school has not properly prepared their graduates for success at the college level, their graduates will likely become college drop-outs in their freshman year.

Several years ago I did this exercise with the local high school (not LHS or FSHS) and decided the public school to which my children were assigned was decidedly not a college-preparatory institution. Rather than move, I went school shopping and found exactly what I was seeking at Bishop Seabury Academy. My oldest child is now in a top-rated university and, while not a National Merit Scholar, received enough financial incentive in the freshman year to make up for two years of the Seabury tuition. I think we'll get an excellent return on our Seabury investment.

jayhawklawrence 4 years, 8 months ago

There is so much I could say on this topic.

All 3 of my daughters attended LHS and South and Schwegler. They had some incredible teachers. Yes, they were smart but they could not make it on their own.

2 of them became National Merit Finalists. The one who did not simply was not as good at testing while in High School. She has since solved that problem and is the most focused person I have ever seen in my life.

All three are in engineering fields.

Me? I was expelled from High School even though I was class President. I was kicked out of a second school so many times I finally just quit and went to work in a factory. My fall from grace was as complete as could possibly be. My friends walked up to receive their diplomas while I worked the night shift loading gas tanks into trucks on a 10 hour shift.

My experiences taught me to be suspicious of politics and teachers and especially administrators. I learned that people that teach ethics oftentimes don't practice what they teach. They compromise and they learn to live for themselves. But in the cracks of the system you find these incredible teachers who actually love their students. You also find incredible talent. I found these teachers at the schools I mentioned and even when my kids did not see it I saw it and I wanted to run out and shout how grateful I was. But I did not. I was quiet. I sat there. I made jokes. I said "thank you".

If you are sending your child to LHS do not worry. Go to every meeting. Love your child. Be patient. Suffer long. Sacrifice often. Pray. Enroll in a night or online class. Show your child you can do it too. Be the example. Don't micromanage. They are smarter than you anyway.

Scott Morgan 4 years, 8 months ago

There is an world class education in any........any public school system in the U.S.A. Including more and more home schools. How to access this education for the most part is up to the parent.

Paul R Getto 4 years, 8 months ago

A honor indeed, but the TIC (Testing industrial complex) has one core function--make money. A better question, perhaps: What percentage of National Merit Scholars are, at age 26, degreed, employed and happy? Better still are they a stable homeowner with a life's mate and maybe a kid? These components are why we invest our resources in public education. These questions apply to all our youth, of course.

Deb Engstrom 4 years, 8 months ago

Had we kept one high school in Lawrence, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

Greg DiVilbiss 4 years, 8 months ago

How many students have been allowed to transfer from the LHS to Free State and how many from Free State boundaries to LHS? I would love to see a graph over time.

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