Where the smart kids go to school – National Merit Semi-Finalists in Houston

If you have children in high school, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the National Merit Scholarship and its qualifying test, the PSAT. Every fall, high school juniors across America sit for this test, which is essentially a shortened version of the SAT – five sections with no essay.

Those whose composite score is above a certain cutoff – roughly 1% of test takers – are designated National Merit Semi-Finalists. This distinction confers eligibility for a variety of privately funded and partner-university merit scholarships. It is also an impressive accomplishment in its own right and a useful asset in the college admissions process.

National Merit and Choosing a High School

High school students and parents aren’t the only ones who should care about the National Merit Scholarship, however. The yearly National Merit Semi-Finalist counts should also be of great interest to middle school parents who are trying to choose the best high school for their children.

A school’s Semi-Finalist count – or, more precisely, the percentage of Semi-Finalists in the graduating class – is one of the most universal metrics by which to compare prospective schools. Figures like average SAT scores are made available at the sole discretion of school administrators, and it can be difficult to gauge the significance of a private school’s endowment as compared to a public school’s budget. But the announcement of a school’s National Merit Semi-Finalists is made by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, not by the schools. And all students in a given year, whether in public or private schools, take the same exam and are scored in the same way. This universal comparability makes Semi-Finalist counts very valuable to parents on the lookout for great schools.

The Houston School Survey, a sister publication of General Academic, provides detailed analysis of schools’ Semi-Finalist totals every year. (You can read all of their findings, including some five-year longitudinal data, here.) This year, for the first time, the analysis includes a calculation of the top 10 schools by percentage of Semi-Finalists in the graduating class. Schools in Houston proper were ranked separately from those in surrounding cities and counties, but both private and public schools were included in the calculations.

Houston Schools with the Most Semi-Finalists

In the city of Houston, one school stands head and shoulders above the rest. St. Johns School, which has consistently maintained a Semi-Finalist count of at least 30 over the past five years, boasts fully 49 Semi-Finalists this year – 35% of their graduating class. This figure is all the more impressive in light of the fact that St. Johns, unlike some college preparatory schools, does not offer for-credit classes in standardized test preparation.

Coming in second and third in the Houston rankings, the nationally acclaimed Carnegie Vanguard and DeBakey high schools demonstrate just how excellent HISD magnets can be. Carnegie Vanguard can claim 13 Semi-Finalists (15% of seniors), while DeBakey can claim 20 (10% of seniors).

Lamar, another HISD magnet which has consistently produced Semi-Finalists, has just 3 this year, less than 1% of their graduating class. However, Lamar’s totals typically fluctuate from year to year – unlike Bellaire, the only HISD magnet school which is on a steady downward trend. From 38 Semi-Finalists in 2011 (nearly 5% of seniors), Bellaire has dropped to 17 this year – only 2% of seniors.

Other top National Merit schools in the city of Houston include Kinkaid, Second Baptist, Strake Jesuit, HSPVA, Memorial, and Stratford.

Regional Schools with the Most Semi-Finalists

In the regional rankings, as in the local ones, one school eclipses all others – the Texas Academy of Math and Science. It may seem strange to include TAMS, since it is relatively far from Houston, but as a public boarding school which draws students from all over Texas, it is an option Houston parents should be aware of. TAMS, which consistently produces more than 40 Semi-Finalists, has an impressive 64 this year – 32% of their graduating class. St. Johns still wins by percentage, but in the raw numbers, TAMS has significantly more Semi-Finalists than any other school tracked by the Houston School Survey.

Interestingly, the regional rankings include only one private school – The John Cooper School in the Woodlands, with 7 Semi-Finalists (8% of seniors). Most of the top regional schools are non-magnet public high schools. In this category, Clements (Fort Bend ISD) tops the list, with a formidable 36 Semi-Finalists – 5% of the graduating class. Many top regional schools can claim more than 15 Semi-Finalists: Dulles (Fort Bend ISD), Taylor (Alief ISD), Seven Lakes (Katy ISD), and Cinco Ranch (Katy ISD).

Other top regional schools include Stephen F. Austin (Fort Bend ISD) and Travis (Fort Bend ISD).

The Significance: What Can These Numbers Tell Us?

So what do these rankings mean? Are these schools providers of top-notch education that thoroughly prepare their students for college? In most cases, probably so, but National Merit Semi-Finalist counts don’t necessarily reflect the rigor or excellence of a school’s curriculum – the concepts tested on the PSAT are deliberately too universal for that. Instead, they give insight into an attribute most other metrics can tell you little about – the quality of the peer group.

Fundamentally, National Merit Semi-Finalists are smart, and they are driven. Many students who score well enough to qualify for Semi-Finalist status do so because they build on their existing strengths by studying and practicing until they are confident they can master the PSAT. Often, part of their motivation to do so comes from their parents, who are aware of the long-term benefits of the National Merit Scholarship and accordingly push their children to prepare fully for the exam. While some schools do offer test prep courses, a majority of students who study for the PSAT do so outside of school.

These students are the kind of peers you want for your children. In an environment where many students are highly intelligent and highly motivated, your children will feel more encouraged to develop their own talents and build their own motivation and self-discipline.

And of course, while Semi-Finalist counts may not directly reflect the overall quality of the school, they are a great indicator of which schools forward-looking and savvy parents are sending their children to. So even though Semi-Finalist counts don’t directly index the quality of instruction, when it comes to private and magnet schools that parents actively choose, it’s a safe bet that a school with a high Semi-Finalist count is an excellent institution in its own right.