Students adjust to new PSAT, SAT exams

Jonathan Seymour

The College Board released scores Jan. 7 for the 2015 PSAT, which along with the new SAT that debuts in March, had a new structure and scoring system, and the Harvard-Westlake juniors and sophomores who took the exam last October do not seem to have been adversely affected by the updates, upper school dean Beth Slattery said.

“Because the scores are on completely different scales, it’s difficult to compare,” Slattery said. “My initial glance at the scores suggests our kids did well overall, as they have in the past.”

The PSAT was changed in a variety of ways to make it a more comprehensive test.

“There are now subscores, cross test scores [and] National Merit scores,” Slattery said. “This test is now more like the ACT, and its intent is not just [for] National Merit, but to determine college readiness in a variety of areas.”

The new test is out of 1520 points and has a math, reading and writing section, although reading and writing are combined into one “super section” called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. Both sections have a maximum score of 38 points. For test scoring, the two scores are summed and doubled, and this total is then multiplied by 10 to compute a total score out of 1520.

One aspect of the PSAT that has not changed is that a student’s junior year score is used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in deciding National Merit Semifinalists in September of each student’s senior year.

To compute a student’s National Merit Qualifying Score, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score is doubled, summed with the math score, and then doubled, so the maximum score is 228.

“From what I understand, the process hasn’t changed, but the scale is different,” Slattery said. “The National Merit Qualifying Score is now out of 228 instead of 240, and there’s really no way for us to know what the cutoff will be until semifinalists are named in the fall.”

Up until the past few years, the PSAT and SAT were dominant in the standardized testing industry, but recently the ACT has surged and is now even more popular than the College Board-administered exams. The new PSAT was likely an attempt by the College Board to bounce back to supremacy, Slattery said.

“There were many factors that influenced these changes [such as a] decrease in market share compared to the ACT, alignment with Common Core [and] developing a test not just for college entrance, but for college readiness,” Slattery said.

Despite all of the changes to the exams, the deans believe socioeconomic status will still affect test performance.

“I don’t think there was much intent to make [them] more ‘fair,’” Slattery said. “Bottom line is that these tests will likely always favor students like the ones at Harvard-Westlake who have the advantage of excellent teachers, small classes and access to test prep. So ultimately, I don’t think these changes affect our kids very much at this point. Hopefully these changes will help students from disadvantaged school districts, but it will be a while before anyone knows if that actually happens.”

As much as the revamped PSAT was daunting for the students who had to be the guinea pigs three months ago, deans and test prep advisers nationwide also struggled to figure out how to understand and give counsel for this test.

“From a practical standpoint, the changes are difficult because the website was a nightmare to navigate, and the score changes require an individual conversation with every kid since they are not easy to translate,” Slattery said. “I guess I appreciate that the score report has more in-depth information, but right now, the test and its rollout is sort of inconvenient. At the same time, I am in support of anything that helps level the playing field in education, so if this attempts to do that, I am in favor. I’m just not sure it does.”

Now that the juniors have taken the PSAT, they are preparing for the launch of the new SAT in March, the first new SAT in 11 years, according to Kaplan Test Prep.

Logistically, the SAT will return to the 1600-point scale, though it will be a split between Math and a new section, Evidence-Based Reading & Writing. The essay will be completely optional, though it will be scored out of 24 points as opposed to 12. Additionally, there will no longer be a quarter-point penalty for wrong answers.

Besides the scores for the two sections and the essay, there will also be two “cross-test scores,” History/Social Studies and Science. These will measure how students performed on history or science-based questions throughout the exam. Finally, the essay and other two sections will each have subscores for a total of seven, which will offer a more detailed analysis of students’ performances in these subjects.

In terms of focus, the SAT questions are being updated to better correlate to the Common Core curriculum utilized by most public school districts so that the test becomes a more accurate representation of high school performance. The New York Times Magazine reported March 6, 2014 that critics around the country found the questions to be esoteric, full of tricks and mostly unrelated to normal school curricula.

As was the case with the PSAT, the College Board most likely revamped the SAT to compete with the rising popularity of the ACT, Slattery said.

“Also, it’s an attempt to align the test with the Common Core, which is being instituted in many school districts across the country,” Slattery said.

Because the new SAT is meant to be more competitive with the surging ACT, it is also meant to have all of the same functions, including acting as a better representation of college readiness. It is no longer just a means of measuring proficiency in reading, math and writing on a national standardized scale.

“I think as these tests appear to have higher stakes, I worry that more students will be taking more tests, which I personally dislike,” Slattery said. “I’d like to see most kids taking the SAT or ACT twice and then a few subject tests, rather than trying each test three or four times. I understand the necessity of standardized tests, but I think it can get out of control.”

The deans do not expect Harvard-Westlake students to prepare or perform any differently on the new version of the test.

“The only issue is how to figure out which test is better for our students,” Slattery said. “That has been made more complicated by the changes because a valid concordance table doesn’t exist, but mostly, these changes should not negatively impact our kids.”

Along with current sophomores and juniors, the deans also have to prepare for the new exam’s debut.

“We have been given significant support from Compass Education Group, which has done extensive research on the new test and what it means to kids,” Slattery said. “They have met with us to do some training on reading the results and on how to help students choose between the two tests.”

There seems to be an argument for both opinions on the revamped SAT. Ultimately, Slattery thinks only time will tell whether the changes were for the better.

“I dislike any changes that create more of a frenzy, which these changes have certainly done,” Slattery said. “They have made it complicated for families, even families with access to good counseling, to know what to do. If these changes ultimately help make things less complicated for families once the dust settles, I’m all for it, but there’s no indication that [that] is the case.”

[Editor’s Note: The Jan. 13 print edition version of this article was inadvertently cut short due to a production error. The full article is here. Additionally, some incorrect specifics about the PSAT scoring system were corrected.]