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Something's Wrong With the PSAT

Aka When Standardized Tests Aren’t Standard


Last fall’s PSAT tests showed an unusual drop in scores. If your child took the PSAT for 10th or 11th graders last fall and their math score seemed low, it may not be the test taker but the test itself.



High school counselors across the country saw significant drops in the PSAT scores for 10th and 11th graders (sophomore and juniors). The lower scores were particularly noticeable in the math section.


This information was distilled by Compass Education Group https://www.compassprep.com/major-drop-in-psat-scores/

  • The number of juniors scoring over 1400 dropped 30% from 71,000 to under 50,000 students

  • The number of sophomores scoring over 1400 dropped 36%

  • High scoring students scored as much as 30 points lower than in previous years. A student who would have scored 1400 in 2019 was more likely to score 1370 in last year’s scoring.

  • Many fewer students scored in the very high National Merit ranges

  • The drop also affected students who are not high scorers. Students scoring around 1200 dropped by 15% for juniors and 21% for sophomores. A 1200 score, for example, would include 600 in Reading and Writing and 600 in Math

  • The average PSAT scores for all 1.7 million juniors who took the test dropped by 10 points

  • Math scores dropped around twice the number of Reading and Writing scores

  • The number of students meeting the Math baseline benchmark for college-readiness dropped 10% in 2019

Either junior and sophomore students all simultaneously scored lower on the Math section, or there is something wrong with the PSAT. The assumption is that there is a problem with how the test was scored, and not a sudden lack of math knowledge. What appears to have happened is that the College Board decided that the test was "too easy" so they scored it on a harsher curve.


This is not the first time this has happened. The scaling of Math scores in the June 2018 SAT was much harsher than in previous test administrations. The College Board decided that the June 2018 math section was easier than usual, so they moved the grading curve. This means that a student who might have missed 5 questions and gotten a 760 for the May SAT, ended up scoring a 610 or lower! For some students who took the test twice in the spring there was a 90 point difference in their math scores! https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2018/07/12/surprisingly-low-scores-mathematics-sat-stun-and-anger-students


College and independent counselors raised heck and demanded that college admissions officers take notice.


What’s going on?


Standardized tests are not "standard," they are subject to varying test score curves and decisions by the test creators that some tests are easier or harder than others. Students have no idea whether any specific test will be judged along similar or "normal" metrics. What to do? Realize that a test score is one among many factors. Here's my pro tip: check out your scores, but don't believe that they definitively show how you will do on the SAT.


The idea of the SAT and ACT are that they are “standardized tests” that allow colleges to compare students around the country against a standard measure of test taking ability or performance, something that is impossible to do with GPA. Each high school may grade more or less-harshly so comparing GPAs between high schools is problematical.


However, as this latest test mishap shows, the tests themselves are capable of being misleading. More and more colleges are doing something about this, currently 1,060 four-year colleges have gone “test optional.” Test optional means that they do not require students to supply standardized test scores. http://fairtest.org/university


In reality, colleges that use a holistic review look at a wide variety of factors including GPA in academic classes, rigor of courses taken, standardized test scores, sustained involvement in both in school and extracurricular activities, the educational and social context in which the student lived, teacher and counselor recommendations, grade patterns, evidence of intellectual curiosity, community involvement, and student responsibilities (e.g caring for family members, work history etc.). They do not look at the PSAT, they only look at the SAT or ACT scores that are reported by the student themselves.


The important takeaway is that there are many factors a college considers; test scores are only one of them.


What does this mean for sophomores and juniors? Usually the score on the PSAT generally indicates how well a student will score on the SAT. (Assuming no additional preparation or tutoring.) This year, especially in math, students and families need to look at the PSAT with a shaker full of salt.

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