“So I got my PSAT score. Now what?”

This week, students across the country will receive their PSAT scores. But both students and parents are often unclear about what those scores mean, the importance (or lack of it!) of those scores, and what the next steps should be. So let’s delve in a bit to the PSAT and those results.

What makes for a good PSAT score?

If you’re a sophomore, then the PSAT can be a good indicator of your starting point on the SAT. Did you score a 920 or better? Then your chances of scoring at or above the national average on the SAT, especially with some preparation, are good. If you’re a junior, then a PSAT score of 1010 or above is considered a “good” score, a 1160 or above would be “great,” and a score of 1290 or above is considered “excellent.” But none of those scores guarantees success on the SAT.

The percentile conundrum

As I talk with students looking to start preparation for the SAT, I find that many of them look more at the percentile score they received on the PSAT than their actual scaled score. Percentile score indicates a student’s ranking among their peers. A student in the 90th percentile, for example, means that the student has scored higher than 90% of the other test takers in the sample. So when I ask a parent how their student did on the PSAT, I often hear, “She was in the 85th percentile,” rather than a score.

The biggest issue with this is that percentiles on the PSAT are not good apples-to-apples predictors of what a student might get on the SAT. Because students across the country–many of whom have no interest in doing well on the test–are taking the PSAT every year, the percentile scores are skewed, especially for those students getting average to high scores. So while it’s great that you scored in the 90th percentile or above, it doesn’t mean as much as it would on an actual SAT.

Does the PSAT matter?

The least complicated answer is “It might.” One of the reasons for the PSAT, other than to give students a chance to practice an SAT, is to give juniors the chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The NMS isn’t a large scholarship; it pays around $2000 to winners. But the bigger payoff of being a NMS semi-finalist, finalist, or winner is the opportunity for scholarship money from colleges.

Schools generally like to tout how many NMS semi-finalists, finalists, and winners they have in their incoming freshman classes, and they are willing to give financial incentives to bring those students to their schools. Some schools, including the University of Alabama, offer full-ride scholarships simply by qualifying as a semi-finalist. You don’t even need to win! So for sophomores, your PSAT score this year can give you an idea of how much work you need to do to put yourself in that category.

The qualifying score for becoming a semi-finalist for the NMS varies state to state. In Idaho, students usually need to score in the low- to mid-1400s (out of 1520) to hit the cutoff score. This is a far easier standard than states such as California, where students need to get a nearly perfect score to qualify.

And if you don’t qualify for the NMS, don’t despair! I’ve had students in the past miss the PSAT cutoff by a hair, only to later get an elite score on the SAT or ACT. So while the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship can be important, the ultimate goal should be to hit a great score on the actual SAT or ACT.

But my PSAT wasn’t close to my goal! What do I do?

The good news is that, regardless of how you scored on the PSAT, you can absolutely improve! With help from an expert on the exam, you can learn how to master the SAT and put yourself in a position to be accepted at your goal schools. While you may not have gotten a score you’re happy with on the PSAT, just remember that it’s just a dry run! You can do better, and we can help!

So your next step should be to think about your goals for the SAT or ACT. The next official ACT is in February, and the next SAT is in March. The holiday break is a great time to begin preparing for your official test and to take the next steps in achieving your goals!

ACT Averages Dropped (Again)

2020 continues to be the year of chaos. From COVID-19 to the politicizing of masks to a hotly contested election, upheaval continues to be the norm. It’s no surprise then that the ACT national average has also experienced negativity. For the third year in a row, the national ACT averages dropped. It now stands at 20.6 (out of 36), the lowest national average in 10 years. The ACT’s national average generally hovers around 21, so the downward trend, while concerning, isn’t precipitous. So what does this mean for you and your student?

The more disturbing trend

The larger issue with the declining averages is what that decline truly indicates. The ACT averages have dropped; what does that actually mean? The ACT is, at its core, a college readiness test. The English section tests on the basics of editing, including punctuation, grammar, and structure, all handy skills for term paper and essay writing in high school and college. The math section ensures that a student has gotten the basic skills s/he needs to be successful, and it also tests–as does the rest of the test–a student’s critical thinking skills.

The reading section tests a student’s ability to read through unfamiliar information and quickly process through what’s important. And the science section evaluates a student’s ability to analyze graphical information quickly and find patterns.

Which leads to the bigger problem with the declining ACT scores–they represent a decline in students’ core skills. Students in today’s high schools have more opportunity to specialize and diversify their educations than ever. They can take dual credit courses at local colleges, dig deeper into specific areas of broader fields, and individualize their educational experiences. This is a good thing. But with that diversification has come an erosion of core skills.

GPA vs. ACT score

Many students who are looking to improve their ACT scores are high GPA students. “Why did my son/daughter get a 21? They get straight As!” is a comment I hear often. The answer is pretty simple: the student can have simple conversations in Mandarin or parrot back information from a study guide on the Gilded Age, but they haven’t mastered the core skills–including critical thinking–that success on the test demands.

Critics of the ACT and other standardized tests point blame at the test. It is demographically biased, they say. Or it tests on irrelevant information. These criticisms, however, come from a position of ignorance about the test. It’s not designed to test on everything a student knows. It’s goal is to test a student’s ability to do something with given information.

What do you need to succeed?

Many students’ reaction to the test after taking their first one is, “I didn’t understand the questions.” This is natural, given that students aren’t taught to think through and pay attention to questions in school. NOT and EXCEPT questions are good examples of this. The ACT will often ask ‘Which of the following is NOT…” or “All of the following are acceptable EXCEPT…” Students often struggle with these types of questions because they miss the NOT or EXCEPT–even though the test capitalizes those words!

On the English section of the test, students very often struggle with basic punctuation and grammar skills. This comes directly from the trend of English classes to only grade the content of a student’s work and to ignore the syntax. If you read most students’ essays or papers, you’ll find run-on sentences, fragments, and punctuation errors that tests (and college professors) expect students to know. Even using digital add-ons, like Grammarly, don’t ensure that a paper is correctly constructed. Over my years as an exam prep tutor, I’ve seen students ACT English scores increase 10 points or more once they learn the basics of grammar and punctuation.

How does exam prep fill the gap?

In sum, the fact that ACT averages dropped is troubling. But the concern should be directed less against the test and more about students’ need to build a foundational skill set. This puts the spotlight directly on exam prep and what it does to fill the gap in a student’s educational experience. While our short term goal is for a student to be successful on the ACT, the additional benefits of critical thinking expertise and a solidification of basic skills will stay with that student through college and beyond.

Educational Benefits of ACT/SAT

In ten years teaching in the classroom and another nine helping students with exam preparation, I feel like I understand both worlds. Criticism of the tests abounds, particularly this year with the additional stress of COVID cancellations and online school. One complaint is that the ACT and SAT don’t test what a student has learned in school. This is at least partially correct, but it ignores a major premise of the exams. They aren’t designed to test what a student knows. But because this is an oft-argued point, I wanted to delve into the educational benefits of the ACT and SAT.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the ACT and SAT is that they’re designed to test knowledge. They are not. Does it help to have knowledge of punctuation and grammar, algebra, and the like? Of course. But the tests generally test on what students can do with their knowledge, not just the knowledge itself.

Why doesn’t 4.0 mean 1600?

In our grade-inflated academic world, many students take their first SAT or ACT thinking that their high GPA will translate into a high score. In a sliver of cases, this is true. But the vast majority of 4.0+ GPA students struggle on these tests. Why? In my experience, the reason is simple. While a straight-A student has learned to play the school game–they’ve turned in their work, used their teacher-provided study guides, participated in class, and, in some cases, taken advantage of second chance tests to improve their scores–they haven’t developed critical thinking skills centered around those concepts. A student may know how to factor a quadratic equation, for example. But s/he may not be comfortable enough with that process to recognize that it’s needed.

A critical thinking example

An example of this appeared on the March 2020 SAT.

In this problem, the student is presented with a fairly complex question, or so it appears. But the crux of the question really comes in the last sentence: put speed in terms of the other quantities. What the questions is actually asking is to use algebra to isolate the v (speed).

Many students who’ve gone through Algebra II have the skills needed to solve this correctly. But many of them are distracted by the details of the question and don’t break down what it actually wants. So, while the SAT is testing on the student’s algebra knowledge, it’s also requiring her/him to understand the question. And, sadly, critical thinking isn’t universally taught in schools, leaving students underprepared to deal with this sort of questioning.

Educational value of the SAT and ACT

And this brings me to why the ACT and SAT are educationally valuable, across the socioeconomic scale. In a recent article on the Fordham Institute website, Travis Koutsoubos-Miles dove into the reasons for the value of the tests to education. In his experience as an English teacher, Koutsoubos-Miles found that the ACT pushed his urban-centered students to improve their overall writing skills.

Both the ACT and SAT test explicitly on grammar and punctuation principles, but most students stop learning those basic skills by the 6th or 7th grade. So for high school students, comma usage, for example, is a forgotten ghost. Preparing to take the ACT or SAT gives students a refresher on those essential rules and how to use them, which can be an invaluable skill for college. The same applies to reading unfamiliar material, inferencing, and other college-necessary skills.

Realigning the focus

What’s the solution? While a few schools are publicly distancing themselves from the ACT and SAT and pushing the idea of “test optional,” Koutsoubos-Miles contends that schools should be even more focused on the tests, using the study of reading, writing, and math on the tests to drive students’ overall understanding and critical thinking skills.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Pragmatically, standardized tests are a convenient tool colleges and universities can use to award scholarships and admit students, but the process of preparation for the ACT and SAT is educationally valuable even above this. By training students to use what they’ve learned and apply it more practically, the tests can help to fill in the gaps left by school systems across the country. Instead of shying away from the ACT and SAT and decrying them as unfair or inaccurate, schools, parents, and students should be more interested than ever in prepping and succeeding at the exams.

As Koutsoubos-Miles says in his piece,

…instead of eliminating high-quality tests, we could develop programs that incentivize teachers to embed their standards into curricula that are written to engage students’ real-life concerns. Blaming tests won’t help. The ACT and SAT reveal competency gaps we cannot afford to ignore. My students and I contend that smart application of these tests plays a key role in closing them.

The “Death of the SAT”? Hardly.

In an Alameda Superior Court ruling this week, a judge ruled that the University of California system must immediately stop using the SAT and ACT for admissions during the pandemic. Lawyers who brought the suit against the UC system applauded the ruling against the “racist” SAT. Many headlines have questioned if this has finally signaled the death knell for the exams. But the death of the SAT is hardly nigh.

Even though the ruling against standardized tests made the news across the country, it’s really a blip on the screen in the year of COVID. And there are several reasons for this.

The fight isn’t over

First, one superior court judge likely won’t be the last word on this issue. The UC system has intimated that they will appeal the ruling. So the case will continue to work its way through the justice system for the time being, regardless of the temporary victory by those who oppose the test. The fact that the university system will go to the trouble and expense to fight to keep the tests–even when they’ve decided themselves to switch to a state-produced exam by 2025–speaks volumes about the value of such tests. As the UC faculty indicated in a recent survey, the SAT and ACT are consistently better indicators of a student’s potential success than high school GPA is. It makes sense to maintain that objective standard.

It’s 2020

One of the reasons cited by the judge to ban the SAT and ACT was that students from disadvantaged neighborhoods and students with disabilities had diminished chances to take the tests due to cancellations during the COVID-19 outbreak. These cancellations affected all students during the crisis, not just those indicated in the suit. So the conditions that led to the judge’s decision are unique to 2020, and the argument ceases to be valid once the testing centers begin administering normally.

The tired argument against the SAT

For all the blustering by opponents of the SAT and ACT, claiming that the test unfairly discriminates against certain groups of students, this is as inaccurate a claim as its ever been. College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free prep for the test for those who want it, and every student would have access to that, if not at home, then at school or the local library. There are innumerable resources online for students to take practice tests and learn strategies for improving. The ACT also offers free resources for preparation on their website, and many schools offer exam prep courses as part of the regular class schedule.

So regardless of the student’s situation, s/he has resources to draw from to make improvements on the tests. Both tests have also made concerted efforts to ensure that there isn’t racial bias in the wordings of the questions, as that has been brought up as a criticism in the past.

What is the SAT anyway?

Through all this, it’s worth asking what the SAT actually is. One of the complaints that’s been lodged for years against the test is that it doesn’t ask the student about what s/he learned in school. Neither the SAT nor the ACT was designed to test a student’s class-specific knowledge. Both tests were designed to test college readiness, and that is a completely different issue.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

I often ask students why they think there’s a reading section on the tests. Are they testing to see if you can read? No. They’re assessing a college-level skill: processing through unfamiliar information and answering basic questions about it. Why are the math questions so confusing sometimes? Because the test is designed to assess the ability to problem solve. Sure, you know basics of algebra, but can you do anything with them? Students who struggle on the tests tend to have struggles with critical thinking and problem solving, and those strategies end up being a large part of any preparation for the tests.

As a side note, one of the great benefits of preparing for the SAT or ACT is that students are reintroduced to math and English concepts that they may not have studied for years, and this can be a great help as they head off to their freshman years at their chosen schools.

The SAT isn’t the only piece of criteria

Opponents of the SAT and ACT often leave out that colleges don’t use the tests as the only tool for admission with students. Stanford routinely rejects perfect scorers on the exams because the test is only one piece of the puzzle. Schools generally value getting a good objective read on a student–this is the best way of comparing students from different states, counties, districts, and schools. A 4.0 at one school is very likely not equal to a 4.0 at another. The SAT and ACT work to normalize those numbers and give admissions departments another way of evaluating prospective students. So a good score doesn’t guarantee anything any more than a lower score does. But for those willing to put in the work, they can maximize their score so that it doesn’t hurt their chances at a particular school.

In sum, standardized tests will always carry some controversy. There will always be those who fault the objectivity and normalization that such tests bring to the process. But this single ruling in a superior court in a California county will not ultimately take away a valuable tool, both for students and for administrators across the country. So those that clamor for the death of the SAT will have to go on clamoring a bit longer.

SAT ACT Cancellations in the Age of COVID

At this point, no one can deny that the COVID-19 outbreak has changed our way of life forever. College admissions haven’t escaped this paradigm shift, with some schools even moving to a “test optional” admissions process. Still, the SAT and the ACT will continue to be important benchmarks for students to use to set themselves apart. The biggest issue in the short term has been ensuring that your testing center will actually give the test. SAT and ACT cancellations have been a huge issue in the age of COVID. Because the SAT and ACT use high schools and colleges as testing centers, and because many of these high schools and colleges remain closed to students due to COVID, we’ve seen many students have their test delayed or canceled. This has led to student and parent frustration and despair. Some wonder if they’ll even get the chance to take the test.

You’ve got plenty of chances!

First things first, if you’ve gotten that email from the ACT or from College Board that says your testing site has been canceled, don’t despair! The best next step is to sign up for the next available test. The SAT is giving tests every month from August to December, so there will definitely be a spot for you! Seniors have the added advantage of a school-administered test on October 14 (to replace the canceled April test). The ACT has added dates in both September and October to try to accommodate as many students as possible. As the curve continues to flatten, students will continue to return to in-school instruction. This will increase the likelihood that schools will administer the tests. So if you’ve been bumped from one of the test dates, you have a great chance of making that test up in the fall.

Stay on top of things!

If you’re already signed up to take the test in September or beyond, be vigilant! Be sure to check back on the website of either the SAT or ACT often. Look for announcements about testing centers being added or canceled. If you stay proactive, you’ll be better equipped to react when necessary. Some of our students have been able to change their testing centers when others canceled, preserving their opportunity to take the test on their chosen date. One things that’s proved true about this era of COVID is that things can change quickly. Stay on top of the latest information–it could mean the difference between taking the test when you want or being forced to wait weeks or months.

Stay positive!

As the best selling book in the universe advises, Don’t Panic! Even if your testing center is canceled and you’re pushed back a month or more, it’s not the end of the world. Keep working, keep taking practice tests, and keep your chin up! Nearly every college and university has altered its normal admission deadlines to reflect the difficulties of COVID and standardized tests. If you’re looking to apply for an early decision or early action, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to get test scores submitted. Many schools are allowing students to submit their scores later than usual. So don’t despair! Keep working and stay positive! You’ve got this! You can navigate through the SAT or ACT cancellations in the age of COVID!