The SAT and PSAT are changing. While the College Board has studied and analyzed it, who really knows how it will affect scores. The first change will be this fall, with the PSAT in October 2015 being in the new format. These changes are supposed to reflect changes to the 2016 SAT. My daughter got a chance to try out the new format with the official PSAT Practice Test #1 (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) from the College Board.
Our kids are two years apart, so our daughter won’t take her junior year PSAT, which counts for National Merit Scholar qualification, until next year. I had mixed feelings about asking her to take time out of her summer for a test. (I hate the current trend in summer projects. ) Taking a test, a standardized test no less, during the summer seemed just as out of place. But we’d already spied the back-to-school section in Target, so the bubble of summer had already been burst.
We also struggle with how much emphasis we want to place on this particular test. The margin for error in the PSAT qualifying score for Texas is very tight, much like trying to edge out 1/100th of a second for an Olympic finish. On the other hand, the rewards in payoff through a scholarship can be upwards of 125K. So when our kids are so close to making the qualifying scores, we can’t afford to ignore it. The other benefit is that any time spent studying for the PSAT will benefit the SAT as well. Even if the rewards from the PSAT are very competitive, at many universities there are automatic awards for high SAT scores. And even just taking the PSAT can increase your SAT scores.
We’ll use our daughter’s sophomore score to judge how much emphasis to put on studying for her junior test and how much she needs to study. So we want her sophomore score to be a true reflection of her performance on the test, not just a reaction to her seeing the new test format. So, she took it. (Can you tell I can over-think things?)
The following are the initial impressions from a student who has taken the SAT as a 7th grader (she qualified for Duke TIP recognition at the state level in all three subject areas) and the PSAT as a freshman. Theses impressions are not a formal analysis of how and why the SAT and PSAT have been changed by the College Board. I’ll leave that to the professionals. (College Prep Genius, which we think was the biggest key element in my son’s studying, is where we’ll turn for studying advice. They have links to all the public information on the new 2015 and PSAT and new 2016 SAT format on their site.) This is from a student’s perspective, but after all, it’s students who’ll be taking the test.
The practice test she took was an official practice test for the new format of the SAT and PSAT released by the College Board.
The Math Sections of the new 2015 PSAT
The math section was what she was most rusty on during the summer. She took geometry last year, so what she noticed the most was that there were only 5 geometry questions on the entire test. The rest were algebra, Algebra I. At first, my daughter thought this was a change. But after we reviewed the test, we figured out that the Algebra just stood out to her because after taking Geometry last year, it had been a long time since she’d reviewed her algebra.
The alignment of students’ math classes seems to be a mess right now. The standard series of math classes is freshmen Algebra I, Sophomore Geometry, Junior Algebra II, and Senior Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry. That is still what most students take, in most schools, unless they get on an “advanced math track” or belong to a school where advanced math and science is standard.
A more advanced math track is pretty common for students who would be taking the PSAT with hopes of qualifying for National Merit. Most advanced and/or GT students are a year ahead, taking Algebra I in the 8th grade so that they take Algebra II their sophomore year, just prior to taking the PSAT their Junior year. So going into their junior year, the more advanced math students have had two years of Algebra. Then they take Calculus their senior year. This is the track we have kept our kids on.
More and more, lots of students are doubling up their math or skipping a year so that they can take Calculus their Junior year and get on a “super advanced” track. We have decided against that, even though our kids do very well in math. But there’s no doubt that lots of advanced students are choosing this track.
Keeping the PSAT focused on Geometry and Algebra I does seem to be the most fair to students who may not have access to the “advanced track” for math that leads to Calculus their senior year. But since even on the normal math track students complete Geometry their sophomore year prior to taking the PSAT in the fall of their junior year, I’m not sure why Algebra is so heavily emphasized. But again, this doesn’t seem to be a change.
(The SAT covers Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.)
The Reading Section of the new PSAT
My daughter said that compared to last year’s lively reading sections that gave #PSAT a lot of traffic on Twitter, the reading passages on the practice test were boring. (Actually, it looks like the reading passages on the PSAT have provided some amusement for students letting off steam after the high pressure of the PSAT, also the subject of some tweets, for quite awhile. Trying to find out about last year’s funny tweets, I found a story about amusing 2013 #PSAT tweets instead.)
The ones on the new practice test that my daughter first recalled were two passages from books written in the 1800s. There was a passage from Emma, by Jane Austen, published in 1815 and Wealth, by Andrew Carnegie, published in 1889. I find it interesting that those were the two items she mentioned as “reading passages.” Apparently she didn’t really notice that two of the reading passages in her first section were scientific and a third looked like it would cover information familiar to her from the humane economics class she took her freshman year. I take that to mean that the literary passages took the most concentration for her. I already had some plans to introduce my girls to Jane Austen’s books. In fact, we had already started with watching the feature film of Emma, and apparently even having done only that really helped on that reading passage.
As far as vocabulary goes, there were no “difficult” words at all. All of the vocabulary questions related to identifying the “best” definition for some fairly common words, that have different or nuanced meanings, as used in the reading passages. Such as, does the word “great” mean lofty, wonderful, large, or intense? That’s more about definition from context than knowing a vocabulary word. I think it’s good to drop the hit-or-miss luck of whether or not a student knows some rather esoteric words. But, I’m surprised that they didn’t replace it instead with more commonly used advanced vocabulary. This test form seems to be testing whether or not a student can discern a definition from context, which means you don’t have to know the definition at all. But since it’s the reading test section, maybe that’s appropriate. It does test a skill more than a learned fact, and upon further reflection that may be better.
The Writing Section of the new PSAT
The biggest changes to the writing section of the PSAT were to its structure. (On the SAT, the essay in the writing portion, which was never a part of the PSAT, is being dropped in the new format.) There are still long reading passages, but it used to be that each passage was complete and uninterrupted. As you got to the later questions, to answer them you would have to flip back and forth in your test booklet, find the portion that related to that question, and reread the passage to find the answer. Now, the longer reading passages are broken into sections, and the questions pertaining to each section are on the same page spread. The layout and typeset design also make it easier to distinguish between questions and to find the portion of the text related to the question.
The old format of the test also had some questions where you made corrections on stand-alone sentences. That part of the section is gone. All of the questions relate to the longer reading passages.
It will be interesting to see how the new PSAT affects scores and National Merit selection, although I’m sure “interesting” is hardly the word students taking the test this year would use to describe it.
What do you think about the new 2015 PSAT?