SAT versus PSAT

General Information about the PSAT

The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is a standardized test that is intended to prepare students for the SAT, and it is also the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT is referred to either as the PSAT/NMSQT (the latter acronym stands for "National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test") or the PSAT 10. The PSAT 10 is the same test as the PSAT/NMSQT, the only difference being the time of year in which it is offered (schools choose dates in October or November for the PSAT/NMSQT and February or March for the PSAT 10). In its most recent version, introduced in 2015, the PSAT includes two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. The former section is broken up into a Reading Test and a Writing and Language Test.

Administration and Function of the PSAT

The PSAT takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete, and is comprised mostly of multiple choice questions, although the math section also includes some gridded response questions. The PSAT is scored from 320 to 1520 (160 to 760 for each of the two sections). The National Merit Scholarship Corporation converts PSAT section scores to a Selection Index that ranges from 48 to 228, which is used to identify semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship. Semifinalists are generally the top 1% of students, with qualifying scores that vary by state (the average is about 214). The Selection Index also identifies "Commended Students" whose scores meet a certain level, most recently above 202 but below the semifinalist level for their state.

History of the PSAT

The PSAT was created by the College Board and first administered in 1959. The National Merit Scholarship Program, a privately funded initiative that began in 1955, adopted the PSAT as its qualifying test in 1971. The PSAT is currently taken by over 3.5 million high school sophomores and juniors each year. The original PSAT included math and verbal sections only, but in 1997, a writing skills section was added. This revision was in response to a complaint filed by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which claimed that the PSAT was biased in favor of males. Statistical research showed that females typically performed better on writing assessments than males, and the addition of the writing section was an attempt to control for gender bias.

The PSAT versus the SAT

Though the PSAT has a good deal of relevance to SAT preparation, there are several distinctions between the two tests. The PSAT is less difficult, and this is at least partially intentional. Verbal exercises closely mirror the SAT, but the math is deliberately easier. Student scores on all sections of the PSAT tend to be slightly higher than the analogous portions of the SAT, which suggests an overall discrepancy in difficulty level. The PSAT, unlike the SAT, is largely irrelevant to college admissions for all students except those who win one of the approximately 8,000 annual National Merit Scholarships. The PSAT is also a shorter test, which raises the issue of endurance as a factor in student performance on the SAT.

Published Research on PSAT Scores and SAT Scores

A 2015 study of public high school students in Virginia Beach, Virginia found "very strong relationships" between the corresponding section scores on the PSAT and the SAT (correlations of 0.84 on critical reading, 0.82 on mathematics, and 0.81 on writing skills). The authors concluded that PSAT scores were "valid predictors" of future SAT scores for this group of students. Another 2015 study of students in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (Ann Arbor, Michigan) claimed that students who score highly on the PSAT are also expected to do well on both the SAT and the ACT.

The PSAT and SAT Prep

Despite the existence of research pointing to the PSAT's benefits, there is no universal agreement on the effectiveness of the PSAT as SAT preparation. The College Board says that the PSAT "tests the same skills and knowledge as the SAT," but some educators believe that time devoted to the PSAT would be better spent on additional SAT prep. Several teachers with no ties to the College Board and no financial stake in test preparation do claim that there is merit in taking both tests, but critics point to lower average scores on the SAT in comparison to the same sections of the PSAT when asserting their view of the PSAT's poor predictive and preparatory value. The best course of action for students and parents considering the PSAT is to review the available data and research and make decisions based on individual goals, academic needs, and logistical issues.