On October 14, 2015, approximately 2.1 million high school sophomores will take the PSAT (preliminary SAT) for the first time.
The administration is intended to expose sophomores to the test before it actually counts for something in their junior year. At the same time, about 1.4 million juniors will be taking the PSAT for the second time, and many will be in for a surprise: The test isn’t anything like the one they took last year.
The College Board, the company responsible for writing and administering the SAT and PSAT, announced in March 2014 that the two tests, which hadn’t been significantly modified in a decade, would be revised to more closely align with the Common Core State Standards. What went unsaid in its announcement was that in 2012 the ACT took over the SAT’s market share for the first time in history.
The ACT, which many students and tutors consider to be the more straightforward test, already matches the Common Core standards and has consistently grown in popularity, particularly in the Midwest and South. The College Board’s decision to steer more closely to the Common Core brings the two admissions tests closer together in both content and format. Since the PSAT has always been a sort of junior SAT, the College Board’s SAT revisions (debuting in March 2016) trickled down to a redesigned PSAT.
In the past, the PSAT has for the most part been a shortened SAT — fewer sections, no essay, but equally difficult. Sophomores and juniors have taken the same test and have received scores ranging between 60 and 240 (which mirrors the SAT’s range of 600 to 2400). In addition to the new test — referred to as the “PSAT/NMSQT” (that second part stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) when offered to juniors and the “PSAT 10” when offered to sophomores — the College Board has expanded its PSAT offerings to include the PSAT 8/9, designed for eighth- and ninth-graders. The three levels of tests (PSAT 8/9, PSAT/NMSQT, SAT) will address the same Common Core-aligned content at three different levels of difficulty.
Whereas the previous PSAT and SAT had three section scores (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing), the new tests will only have two section scores: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The SAT will return to its pre-2005 scale of 400–1600 (200–800 points per section), the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 will be scored 320–1520 (160–760 points per section), and the PSAT 8/9 will be scored 240–1440 (120–720 points per section). There’s also no penalty for answering incorrectly as there has been in the past, and scores will be broken into individual subsections to provide more thorough and precise feedback.
It remains to be seen how the new PSAT and SAT scores will correlate to one another, but the College Board’s intent in designing these three different point systems is to reflect the ascending level of difficulty in students’ ascending scores.
The PSAT has for decades been most students’ first exposure to college admissions tests, which is why most students and parents I meet with think PSAT means “practice SAT.” Other than providing a dry run, the PSAT hasn’t had much influence on the average student’s academic career. However, this is where the NMSQT part of the test’s name comes in.
Each year about 50,000 students’ scores qualify them for some form of recognition, and about 7,600 students make it all the way through the qualification process and receive National Merit Scholarships. Only about 3.5 percent of students who take the test receive any commendation, and only the top one-half of 1 percent earn National Merit Scholarships. Recognition as a National Merit Scholar recognizes students as an elite group, and many colleges reward Scholars with generous scholarship packages. The other 99.5 percent of students who took the PSAT are simply rewarded with scores and percentiles ranking them with their peers.
The new PSAT will have a much more far-reaching influence than in the past. The College Board has partnered with the American Indian Graduate Center, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to provide approximately $180 million dollars in scholarship funds for low-income students and students of color. Students only need to check a “yes” box on their test to participate in the scholarship search.
In the past, I haven’t offered PSAT tutoring to rising juniors unless they earned a score of 185 or higher as sophomores, putting them in a position to reach the National Merit cutoff score. (This varies from state to state, but the cutoff is often in the 206–225 range.) The SAT and ACT have much more of an influence on most students’ lives, and I counsel parents to spend time and money preparing for those rather than the PSAT. This year is an interesting exception, since most of the 1.4 million juniors taking the new PSAT won’t have ever seen the new test; they took the old PSAT last year! Preparing, even a little, for this year’s PSAT may have an oversized influence on a student’s score
Juniors should prepare for the new PSAT’s timing, content, and required skills. The new test is 30 minutes longer than the old PSAT and only 15 minutes shorter than the new SAT. There’s no way to prep for the endurance that a test that takes nearly 3 hours requires, other than gradually building up longer focus with practice tests.
The content changes are significant, and the College Board outlines them a bit on its site. Broadly speaking, this new test will require students to conduct more analysis in “extended contexts” and to focus on the “tone” and “impact” of word choices in passages.
Other than this brief overview, the organization has released one new full-length PSAT practice test, 94 new SAT/PSAT sample questions, and four new full-length SAT practice tests for students to get acquainted with the revamped test materials. We don’t yet know how much the SAT and PSAT will differ in difficulty, but at this point students should use all the available materials to prep for the PSAT/NMSQT.
We won't have a workable picture of the new PSAT until students' scores are released in December. Even then, we won't have a complete idea of the College Board's new tiered scoring approach until the new SAT is administered in March 2016 and scores are released in May.
Although that's a little uncomfortable for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and tutors alike, the good news is that all students are in the same boat. Take advantage of this uncertainty by reading up on the new test and preparing for the planned changes.