Understanding Your PSAT Score

Understanding Your PSAT Score

There is definitely value in the PSAT, but it’s not where you’ve been taught to look.  The things that the College Board and high schools, especially elite ones, emphasize—National Merit recognition, the well-formatted analysis of which content areas a student needs to improve on, and the advance preparation for the real SAT—are not actually the most valuable elements of the PSAT/NMSQT. Sure, the PSAT provides some insight on how a student is likely to perform on the SAT, and it does offer students “test-taking experience” for what that’s worth. In this regard, the PSAT is like the preseason scrimmage of standardized testing— a shorter, practice version of the real thing that lets you measure up against “the competition” (in this case, other students).

While the scrimmage metaphor accounts for some of the PSAT’s utility, the pattern of responses – scatter versus ceiling – offers even more important information to test prep professionals like us about the cognitive profile of a student, the skills (not “content areas”) they need to improve, and the kind of SAT prep that will be most effective for them. But the most valuable thing about the PSAT is that it can direct many students to focus their efforts on the ACT instead, something which the College Board definitely won’t tell you! A comparison of a student’s PSAT scores to her grades in school and her performance on an ACT diagnostic test, like the Aspire (formerly the PLAN), can tell us which students are better off taking the ACT instead.

In anticipation of sophomores and juniors getting PSAT score reports back this week, I thought it would be helpful to parents and students to understand how the PSAT is scored, what important information to take away from the PSAT, and how to proceed with test prep (for the SAT or the ACT) now that results are back.

The Scale and Scoring

The PSAT has three sections— Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing Skills— each scored on a scale from 20-80, with each section corresponding with a section of the SAT.  Scores are determined after students take the test in October, meaning that students are scored against how other students perform on test day. The scores are normally distributed with a score of 50 used to represent the performance of the greatest number of students. The farther a score is from 50, the fewer students obtaining that score on a particular test date; this effect strengthens as scores move farther from the median— fewer students score 60 on a section than score 55, but the ratio of students who score 65 to students who score 60 is lower still, and so on. By normalizing scores in this fashion, the College Board aims to make each score on the PSAT represent the same performance year after year (so a 75 on math means the same thing today that it did last year or ten years ago).  Scores from each individual section are added to form the Selection Index, which is scaled from 60-240.  The selection index is used to compute a student’s percentile across the whole test; it is also used to determine National Merit recognition (more on this later as well).

Please refer to the following graph for an illustration of the test’s normal distribution (in this case, using 2013 PSAT Critical Reading data for juniors). As you can see, fewer and fewer students attain scores at the extremes of the scale, while the majority of students are bunched in the middle, close to 50. 

The important number to take away from these scores is the percentile.  The percentile attached to each score indicates the percentage of students who scored the same or lower on the same test. For instance, the mean score— in this case 47.7— is exactly 50th percentile (meaning that a student scoring the mean, if it were possible, would have performed better than 50% of students taking the test).  A score of 55 on critical reading jumps all the way to 74th percentile; 60 represents an 85th percentile score; 65 is a 93rd percentile score; 70 represents the 96th percentile.  To put it in numbers of students, in 2013, about 55,500 students scored exactly 50 on the critical reading section, while roughly 9500 scored 75 or higher.

Understanding the Subscores/Breakdown of Questions

Each section of the PSAT includes subscores, which break down how students perform on specific areas of Math, Writing and Critical Reading sections. The PSAT score report will indicate number of questions right and wrong in, for instance, algebra & functions vs. geometry and measurement in math, determining the meaning of words vs. reasoning and inference in critical reading, or phrases and clauses vs. correctly formed sentences in writing skills, among many others.  To be honest, we only find value in these subscores if there are any extreme discrepancies between one subscore and another (for instance a perfect score on “tone and technique” and a 5/15 in “determining the meanings of words” could indicate a significant vocabulary deficiency); more often, however, there are few or no discrepancies between subscores. Furthermore, an attempt to categorize SAT questions into content areas is fundamentally flawed, since the SAT is not a content-based test. If an obvious weakness arises in, for example, geometry and measurement, then it would, of course, make sense for a student to brush up on geometry content.  However, the subscores can be misleading, since missing 2 more geometry questions than algebra questions on a PSAT can cause significant fluctuations in subscores which may have nothing to do with a content weakness. Instead, small errors may be more indicative of issues with reading for detail, sequencing, novelty, or some combination of the cognitive skills tested by the SAT than it does with knowledge of the respective math disciplines.

A more important takeaway is in the actual question numbers a student misses.  In critical reading, are the mistakes mostly in the sentence completion section of the test or the reading comprehension section?  In math, are the errors scattered throughout or clustered at the end of each section?  Trends like these are more helpful in diagnosing potential sources of weakness in a student’s score.  Additionally, comparing the score report to the test booklet (which PSAT provides along with the score report) and examining the specific questions that were missed is also valuable— again, focusing more on cognitive abilities tested than on “grammatical relationships between words” and “words & phrases used to modify or compare,” for example.

Translating PSAT scores to SAT scores

Earlier, I wrote that many students and parents believe that simply adding a zero to each section of a junior PSAT provides a rough estimate of what their spring SATs may look like.  This is not entirely true, as there are several complicating factors. It is true that the “average” student sees a slight increase from PSAT to SAT—in 2013, the average junior increased his or her reading score by 17 SAT points (1.7 PSAT points) in critical reading, 16 SAT points in math, and 22 SAT points in writing between the October PSAT and a spring SAT.  However, only roughly 60% of students saw increases in each section, while 6-8% earned a similar score and roughly 33% of students suffered a decrease in score.  This could be caused by several factors— some students begin preparing for the SAT after seeing PSAT results, while some do not.  Additionally, increased exposure to rigorous academic work or outside reading is likely to improve scores, while lack thereof can keep scores stagnant or cause them to decrease (remember, you’re being tested against other students who take the test!).  Finally, initial score matters as well—generally stated, the lower an initial PSAT score, the better the chance for an improved SAT score in the spring (there’s more room for improvement starting from a lower score, so don’t be upset if your score is lower than you’d hoped— improve it!). 

A note for sophomores— your scores are produced by the same scaling as all students who take the test, including juniors and even some freshmen.  The important number for sophomores to consider is the percentile relative to other sophomores.  Sophomores should expect their junior year PSATs to line up more with the percentiles indicated beneath the scaled scores than the actual scores themselves.  So, for instance, your critical reading score of 54 might seem unimpressive when you consider the 54 out of a possible 80, but the 83rd percentile this score represents among sophomores means that you can expect something closer to 59 or 60 when you repeat this test as a junior.  The most important things sophomore can do are: 1) don’t panic, it’s early; 2) work hard in your classes, keep your grades up, and push yourself to take the most difficult classes appropriate for you; 3) start READING outside of school much, much more (it doesn’t matter if it’s the NY Times, Dickens, or The Hunger Games—just read!!).

National Merit Qualification

Finally, I want to dispel some false notions about the National Merit aspect of this test.  Many high schools tout the number of National Merit scholars their graduating class has; many students are led to believe their college acceptance chances hinge on getting recognition by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  In reality, National Merit recognition has almost NO bearing on college admissions whatsoever.  First of all, only 4% of test takers nationally get any recognition at all, and requirements vary by state (In Washington D.C. or New Jersey, becoming a finalist in 2013 required a selection index of 224 out of a possible 240— a much higher than 99th percentile score nationally— while in Wyoming and West Virginia, 203—a 97th percentile score nationally— qualified students for recognition).  The entire point of National Merit recognition, really, is to award scholarships to students who qualify, but even then, the scholarships are small relative to the cost of college tuition (roughly $3000).  Additionally, recognition isn’t finalized until the spring of a student’s senior year, making it essentially irrelevant from college admissions departments’ perspectives. The real point of the PSAT is to provide information to students that will allow them to begin preparing for the tests that actually count— SAT and/or ACT.