For those of us following education news closely, it was virtually impossible to find a news outlet that didn't cover the release of the PSAT scores (and, admittedly, the drama surrounding the delayed release of the scores).

With many BASIS.ed students across dozens of our schools participating in the PSAT, our college counselors were particularly busy answering a number of questions about what students need to know about the new scoring system, addressing parental and student confusion, and how to turn the results into actionable insights for getting ready for the SAT. To help shed some light on the test that not only helps students guide their preparation for the SAT but also provides the qualifying scores for the National Merit Scholarship program, we called upon Jill Fonda, BASIS.ed college counselor to give us the skinny. Here is what she has to say:

"When it comes to the redesigned PSAT, there is a LOT to know. Ok, here we go:

  • While this is not specific to the new PSAT, families and students need reassurance that no one will see PSAT scores except relevant high school personnel and students/families. Colleges will only have insight into a student’s PSAT score if the student is a National Merit Scholar Semifinalist/Finalist or Commended Student, both of which indicate the student was among the top 1% or 3% of test takers, respectively.
  • Many students and families are confused about the PSAT scoring scale. The 2015 PSAT was scored on the same scale as the redesigned SAT; however, the PSAT was out of a possible 1520 points and the SAT will be out of 1600 points. Students think this means that they need to manipulate their PSAT scores in order for them to be predictive of SAT scores, but that’s not the case: the College Board states that the SAT is more difficult than the PSAT and therefore the score on the PSAT, while out of fewer points, is predictive—as is—of a student’s SAT score. Mind you, counselors and the College Board alike prefer to direct students to their predicted score range on their detailed score reports. This range highlights the idea that student performance can vary from test to test and that a single score is not a perfect indicator of future results.
  • Students and families should also keep in mind that new PSAT scores cannot be directly compared to old PSAT scores. Comparison can only be accomplished using the concordance tables provided by the College Board, available here. This can be useful when evaluating growth from previous PSAT administrations and also when using new PSAT scores to research colleges that publish pre-redesign SAT data. For students using PSAT data to inform their SAT vs. ACT decision, it is generally recommended that students concord 2015 PSAT scores to 2014 SAT scores and use the established SAT to ACT concordance tables, available here, to predict performance. This relates to the score inflation trend, discussed later.
  • Additionally, because this is the first national administration of the redesigned PSAT, I think all stats should be viewed critically. For example, while score reports include a National Merit Selection Index, previous cut-offs for National Merit Scholarship selection cannot be used to predict eligibility, as these cut-offs were based on the old PSAT data. Colleges are also unsure how they will use the new SAT scores in admissions because there is no historical data. For example, schools with automatic admission based on standardized test scores will need to reevaluate appropriate cut-offs.
  • When it comes to interpreting scores, there seems to be a general trend of score inflation on the new PSAT, which this blog post does a great job of explaining. Pay particular attention to how the College Board assigns percentiles (nationally representative sample percentile vs. user percentile) and how eliminating the guessing penalty impacted the 2015 PSAT curve.

Since colleges don’t ever see PSAT scores, the main purpose of the PSAT (other than potentially earning scholarship money) is to provide feedback to students. Here are my recommendations for using PSAT data to inform SAT prep:

  • Tenth grade students who are within a reasonable range from the NMS cut-off may want to spend some time over the summer between sophomore and junior year preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT.
  • All students should have received their original PSAT test booklet and an answer key. To maximize the usefulness of the PSAT, students should analyze their exam and try to understand why they missed the questions they did. This process may also highlight test-taking skills in need of improvement, such as time management, checking the bubble sheet for blanks, etc.
  • Eleventh grade students can use the detailed online score report to better understand their areas of strength and their areas in need of improvement. SAT prep books (make sure they’re for the redesigned SAT) give students the opportunity to practice individual skills, but the Khan Academy SAT prep program is by far the easiest way to obtain an individualized study program. Linking a student's College Board and Khan Academy account is easy, and the resulting personalized online test prep is focused while still being comprehensive (or so I’ve heard). It’s also completely free!

Thank you, Ms. Fonda for your thorough advice on how to interpret the test results and weighing in on next steps for students. For more on this year's PSAT results, read the Washington Post's coverage on the problems with PSAT score delivery and U.S. and World Report's recommendations on how students, families, and schools can make use of the new PSAT results

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