SAT Prep – the 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 in terms of subject matter and difficulty, but it differs from the PSAT/NMSQT in two important ways:

  1. Students take the PSAT 10 in the spring of 10th grade, instead of in the fall of 10th or 11th grade.

  2. The PSAT 10 does NOT qualify students for the National Merit Program.

Students do not register for the PSAT through the College Board; instead, schools and districts decide if and when to offer the test. The PSAT/NMSQT is offered in October while the PSAT 10 is offered in February or March. In its most recent version, introduced in 2015, the PSAT requires 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete and is composed of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. Most of the questions offer four multiple choice options to choose from, although some math questions to ask the student to write in the answer rather than select it. The PSAT costs $18 per student, but many high schools in the United States cover all or part of this fee.

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 in their respective states, with qualifying scores that vary by state (the average is about 214). The Selection Index also identifies "Commended Scholars" whose scores meet a certain level, most recently above 202 but below the semifinalist level for their state; generally, the top 3-4% of scorers receive the designation of “Commended Scholar”. American high school students living abroad and taking the PSAT overseas will be required to obtain the same score as whatever the highest individual state score is within a given year in order to qualify as a semifinalist for a National Merit Scholarship. For example, in 2022, the highest section index score was 223, meaning an American high school student taking the PSAT abroad would need to score much higher than the general test average in order to be considered in the top 1% of test takers.

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.

In 2015, the PSAT underwent its most significant changes in 30 years, which the College Board states were intended to make the test more relevant to current high school curriculum. Changes included:

  • Exam length: The exam was lengthened from 2 hours and 10 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

  • Number of sections: Prior to 2015, there were three sections named "Critical Reading," "Mathematics," and "Writing." After the revision, there were two sections, the first of which is "Evidence-Based Reading and Writing" (composed of Reading, Writing, and Language tests) and the second of which is "Mathematics."

  • Total number of questions: The PSAT prior to 2015 was composed of 125 questions, whereas the PSAT from 2015 and on has 138 questions.

  • Scoring: The PSAT that was available prior to 2015 had composite scores ranging from 60-240. The newest version of the PSAT features composite scores ranging from 320-1520.

  • Penalties: The earlier version of the PSAT penalized incorrect answers by ¼ of a point. The current version of the PSAT does not penalize students for incorrect answers.

Beginning in fall 2023, students in the United States, as well as those students living internationally, will be able to take the PSAT/NMSQT digitally using a computer. According to the College Board, this is so students who will be taking the SAT as juniors in the fall of 2024 will have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the digital test-taking experience before taking the SAT. There has been no indication the PSAT will undergo additional revisions in either content or scoring as part of transitioning to digital format.

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 currently a shorter test than the SAT, although once the SAT goes digital it will be reduced from over 3 hours down closer to 2 hours, meaning the PSAT will then be the longer of the two tests.

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. In more recent years, studies have begun to examine the effects of socioeconomic factors on students' PSAT scores and their relationship to eventual SAT scores. Research suggests that factors such as household income, family poverty level, school poverty level, and race/ethnicity all exert effects on individual PSAT scores, although the strength and significance of these effects vary between studies.

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.

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