By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District hopes a new initiative that has shown some early promise can help it produce more National Merit Semifinalists and Finalists.
Tupelo High School added a nine-week class last semester to prepare students for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Better known as the PSAT, that is the test used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to select students for the prestigious distinction that can lead to large college scholarships.
The six students who took the school’s new tutorial class improved by an average of 45 points on the test, which has a perfect score of 240.
The newness of the course probably contributed to the low participation, said THS Principal Jason Harris, adding that he hopes its success can lead to a larger enrollment in the future.
“It is a goal in our school district to have National Merit Semifinalists and National Merit Commended students,” said Harris, who made a presentation about the class during Tuesday’s School Board meeting. “The only way to do that is to make a focus on it.”
Taught by THS English teacher April Friar, the class was held for 95 minutes each day, leading up to the October test. If focused heavily on vocabulary, reading stamina and critical reading strategies, she said.
The class also examined the math sections of the PSAT, and students took four practice tests.
“Students were enthused about it,” Friar said, noting that their enthusiasm led to the class’ success. “It gave them a unique learning experience.”
Based on the scores of the juniors who took the test in October, Harris said the school should have a National Merit Semifinalist next year and possibly a handful of National Merit Commended students. Those honors are announced during the fall of the students’ senior year.
Tupelo High has a long history of producing National Merit Semifinalists, with about 60 such students earning the distinction between 1998 and 2006, including 11 in one year. Since 2006, however, only four THS students have reached that mark, including none in the last two years.
Less than 1 percent of U.S. high school seniors are chosen for the honor, based on the PSAT score from their junior year. The number in each state is proportional to its percentage of the national total of graduating seniors. About 90 percent of Semifinalists earn Finalist standing.
The honor is not only prestigious to students and schools; it also makes students more competitive for admission to highly selective universities and leads to lucrative scholarship opportunities.
THS also began last year to offer tutoring to juniors before and after school and during its T-period to help them prepare for the test. It continued that tutoring this year.
The school offers the test to all of its freshmen and to sophomores in pre-AP English II. It targets those who score at least a 150 as sophomores to get extra tutoring. The cut score for being a National Merit Semifinalist varies, but Harris said it is often between 200 and 202 in Mississippi.