Monday, February 08, 2010

Eric Hoover: How The National Merit Scholarship Corporation Tried to Muzzle a Blogger

How a Scholarship Corporation Tried to Muzzle a Blogger
By Eric Hoover
The Chronicle of Higher Education

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation has used legal pressure to stop an independent college counselor from publishing the state-by-state cutoff scores for its prestigious scholarship program.

Nancy Griesemer, the counselor, says she wasn't looking for trouble, just pursuing her favorite hobby with the help of a laptop computer. Ms. Griesemer, 59, works from her home, in Oakton, Va. On weekday mornings she sits down at her dining-room table to write. With Tom, her arthritic tabby cat, perched beside her, she types short entries about college admissions trends, which she posts on her blog, College Explorations, as well as, a vast online hub for bloggers.

All told, Ms. Griesemer gets between 150 and 250 page views per day, not bad for someone who doesn't write about politics or sex. It's a safe bet that most of her readers are local high-school students and their parents.

Recently, someone else started reading her blog. That someone works for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which conducts the annual competition for its high-profile National Merit Scholarships. Based in Evanston, Ill., the privately financed nonprofit organization is a powerful—and controversial—player in the realm of selective admissions. Ms. Griesemer characterizes the group this way: "It appears that they go after people who are critical of them."
An Unexpected Call

In late January, Ms. Griesemer received a telephone call from Eileen Artemakis, the corporation's director of public information. Ms. Artemakis asked Ms. Griesemer for the name of her lawyer. The counselor was stunned. "What's the problem?" she asked.

The answer: the blog entry Ms. Griesemer had published on January 26. In that post, she described how the National Merit Scholarship program works. The corporation uses just one measure, PSAT scores, as the "initial screen" to determine which students are eligible for the scholarships. The corporation uses a specific methodology to ensure an equitable geographic distribution of the awards, which means that the cutoff scores vary from state to state.

In her post, Ms. Griesemer explained that a student in Massachusetts needs a higher PSAT score than a student from Wyoming does. "Unfair?" she wrote. "Maybe."

Ms. Griesemer also listed the 2010 minimum qualifying scores for each state, which range from 201 to 221 (on the PSAT's scale of 60 to 240), according to information she compiled. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not release those data to the public, though it does publish the information in its "Guide to the National Merit Scholarship Program," mailed each summer to high schools throughout the nation. Test takers are informed only of the qualifying score in their own states. "Surely," Ms. Griesemer writes of the variances among state qualifying scores, "there must be a better way."

Ms. Griesemer, who says she has never seen the guide, obtained her information from other Web sites, including College Planning Simplified. It was the first site that came up in a Google search, says Ms. Griesemer, who later double-checked the numbers on the Web site College Confidential's discussion board, where various commenters had posted the minimum scores in their respective states.
'Misleading to the Public'

In other words, the cutoff scores are hardly a secret. Still, Ms. Griesemer says Ms. Artemakis told her that she had published proprietary data. Although Ms. Artemakis did not ask Ms. Griesemer to remove the information, she told the consultant that she would soon hear from the corporation's lawyer.

Last Thursday, Ms. Griesemer received a letter from J. Kevin Fee, a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Morgan Lewis. Mr. Fee wrote that Ms. Griesemer had used proprietary data from the corporation's "copyrightable materials," referring to the guide it sends to high schools. He also wrote that her posts contained incorrect information: "Using inaccurate ... information out of context is misleading to the public and highly damaging to NMSC."

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