College Board steps back from harder PSAT
It seems the class of 2017 is getting its first break from the College Board. Last week the College Board released the first full-length version of the new PSAT and, to our great surprise, we found this test to be remarkably easier than the practice PSAT content the College Board released in late December. Is the College Board responding to its critics and backing away from a much harder test? Or will the new PSAT stand apart from a much harder SAT?
The December SAT/PSAT problem set was shocking in its elevated level of difficulty, noticeably more challenging than the initial round of practice problems released in April 2014, and more challenging than either the current SAT or ACT. The December PSAT reading passages resembled SAT Literature and AP English passages in their complexity (example). And the math items were more complicated and challenging than anything we had ever seen on the PSAT (example). We were therefore anticipating the hardest PSAT in history, but the full-length practice test released last Tuesday was surprisingly tame in comparison to the December sample items.
To what can we attribute the substantial decline in difficulty level on the new PSAT? In part, what we’re seeing is the result of a test-writing process that continues to evolve by the minute. The fact that the practice PSAT arrived a week after the promised March 19th deadline is a reflection of this ongoing process. The College Board is still working out the details of the new PSAT and SAT and, as the test writers work to assemble the new content and establish appropriate levels of difficulty, the College Board has continually struggled to hold to its self-imposed timeline for the release of new testing material. Did the College Board overshoot with the December practice problems, releasing remarkably challenging content before completing its own internal calibration of appropriate difficulty levels? Or will the new SAT be as challenging as the practice problems suggested? This remains to be seen.
When it comes to the relative difficulty of the PSAT versus the SAT, we do know the College Board is changing its paradigm. Currently the PSAT is simply a shorter version of the SAT, virtually identical in both content (with the exception of the essay) and level of difficulty. The PSAT scoring (20-80 points per section) aligns cleanly with the SAT scoring (200-800 points per section). The new PSAT paradigm involves a move towards vertical scaling and ascending levels of difficulty. The PSAT will now be available to younger students, with content specifically calibrated to their levels of ability. PSAT 8 will be designed expressly for 8th graders, PSAT 9 for freshmen, PSAT 10 for sophomores, and PSAT NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) for high school juniors. As students rise from PSAT 8 all the way to PSAT NMSQT, the difficulty level and corresponding score range will scale up. PSAT 8 and 9 will have score ranges of 120-720 points per section, with maximum test scores of 1440 points; the PSAT 10 and NMSQT will have score ranges of 160-760 points per section, with maximum test scores of 1520; and the SAT will have a score range of 200-800 points per section, with a maximum test score of 1600. This approach to vertical scaling follows the model established by the ACT Inc., in which the PLAN assessment (now replaced by the ASPIRE) was scored on a 32 point scale compared to the full 36-point scale of the ACT.
With this new paradigm of vertical scaling, we know that the SAT will be more challenging than the PSAT, but we do not yet know the extent of the difference in the level of difficulty. Many of the hardest math items released in the December set, particularly those from the “passport to advanced math” grouping (sample item), were conspicuously absent from the PSAT. Will math items of this level of difficulty appear on the new SAT or end up on the cutting room floor? In regards to reading, the College Board has made clear that the textual complexity of the new SAT passages will be greater than that found on the PSAT. Students will face longer passages, passages paired with charts and graphs, and passages with a greater emphasis on social studies and science. Although questions remain about the new SAT, we can now make definitive statements about the new PSAT, having spent a week poring over every detail of this new test. Using this practice test as our guide, here is what students can expect on the forthcoming October 2015 PSAT:
Timing and Structure
The new PSAT is a two hour and 45-minute assessment, 30-minutes longer than the current PSAT, and 15-minutes shy of the new SAT. Students will face a 60-minute reading section, a 35-minute writing section, a 25-minute calculator free math section and a 45-minute calculator optional math section.
The greatest change to the new PSAT reading section is the length of the passages. The new reading format closely resembles that of ACT: big block passages, one after another. The short passages from the old PSAT are conspicuously absent.
The new reading questions will require students to change the manner in which they read the passages. Only 17 of the 47 items were classic line reference questions (i.e., “the reference to the ‘wild-eyed shaman’ in line 36 serves mainly to…”). This is a significant departure from the current SAT/PSAT, where line reference questions make up the majority of items. When line references abound, students can skip the passage and go directly to the questions in order to work their way through the passage. When line references are scarce, as is the case on the ACT and now the new PSAT, students will need to read the passage before tackling the questions.
Ten of the items asked students to identify the “best evidence” for the answer to the previous question. Thus 10 pairs of items—20 total items accounting for 42% of the reading section—asked students to first answer a question about the passage (without the benefit of a line reference) and then scour the passage to find support for their previous choice. To work these paired answers effectively, students will need to search the passage to find the right answer choice, which will take significantly more time than a line reference question. The test writers are aware that this process is more time-intensive and are granting students 77 seconds per reading item, which is 47% more time than students will have on a comparable ACT reading item (52.5 seconds).
Seven of the items, 17% of the test, were simple vocabulary-in-context questions. The vocabulary assessed consists of easy words such as “directed,” “want,” “plot,” “stores,” “greatest,” and “deepest,” which will require no memorization. And none of the reading items had challenging vocabulary in the answer choices, as was the case on the December problem set.
The passages seemed to directly mimic the ACT’s reading passages, ranging from prose to social science to natural science to humanities. Interestingly, the level of difficulty of the passages varied significantly.A Jane Austen passage provided advanced and literary language (“indulgent fathers,” “disagreeable consciousness,” and “unexceptional character.”) But there is also an uncharacteristically informal and colloquial science passage about hibernation, with descriptions of “chunky, nice and roly-poly” bears who “pack on the pounds by chowing down.” Quite a range of textual complexity!
Overall, the reading section did increase in difficulty from the current PSAT. It introduced longer passages and new questions that will require a different approach; however, many of the tried-and-true questions (vocabulary-in-context, purpose of passage, inference) remain.
Writing and Language
The writing and language section was the most surprising. Based on the sample problems provided in December, we expected to see SAT-level passages requiring a strong reading ability. On the contrary, the redesigned PSAT features more basic passages, making grammar errors much easier to spot. The level of the passages and types of concepts tested gave this section a much more basic feel than did the sample problems from December.
As with the reading section, the writing section borrows heavily from the ACT. Of the 44 questions, 16% were illogical connectors, 14% related to punctuation, 5% were redundancy questions (e.g., measuring the annual rainfall each year) and a full 23% constituted rhetorical questions (adding new information, concluding appropriately, and correcting the flow of a paragraph). These question types have always been hallmarks of the ACT English section, but until now were minimally present on the SAT writing section. The test featured only one parallelism question, the current SAT’s most popular grammar subject.
While the new PSAT resembles the ACT in content and difficulty, students will have 48 seconds per item on the PSAT compared to 36 seconds per item on the ACT. The extra 12 seconds per item is equivalent to receiving an accommodation for 33% increased time on the PSAT without having to fill out any paperwork. That extra time will be meaningful for many students.
While the math section presented several very difficult problems toward the end of each section, the overall level of math difficulty never approached that of the December practice problems. This new PSAT is predominately an algebra test, and geometry dropped precipitously to account for only 5 of the 48 math items. Multiple equations presented as word problems, quadratic equations, intersecting graphs, or systems of equations accounted for about 20% of the questions. The test asked only one trigonometry question. As for new concepts, the PSAT features more data analysis (scatterplots, lines of best fit, frequency distributions, histograms, and nonlinear associations) and science-oriented questions.
Following the Common Core guidelines, this new PSAT emphasizes fluency and analysis more than the old PSAT. Students need to interpret variables and understand how to model equations. If one variable in the equation changes, how will it affect the others? What does it mean that (14, 6) is a solution to an equation? How will the change in a coefficient affect the output of a function? Students need to be able to articulate these distinctions rather than solve, requiring a deeper level of understanding. The old “plug and chug” model and strategies such as picking numbers and working backwards will be rendered meaningless for these kinds of problems.
On this new PSAT, students may find that they rarely pick up their calculators, even when allowed to do so. Interpretation and understanding trump solving. Students will also have to exercise more discrimination. On the old PSAT students were effectively given a roadmap to an answer, and they simply had to follow it methodically to arrive at the correct answer. One of our most tenured tutors has spent the past decade telling her students, “On the SAT, they never give you extra information. If you get stuck on a math question, ask yourself ‘what haven’t I used yet?’” This advice will no longer work. On this new PSAT, several problems had distractors, or information irrelevant to the task at hand. Students will need to figure out what’s important rather than follow a pre-ordained path.
Students can solve each problem using a number of methods, some faster and more direct than others. Students will need to pick the proper tool from their toolkit to expediently work through each problem. And students will have more time per item. The difference between the timing on this test and the ACT is startling. The ACT gives students 60 minutes to complete 60 items. On this PSAT, students will have 70 minutes to complete 47 items: 89 seconds per item, compared to 60 seconds, akin to receiving an accommodation of 50% extra time on this new test! Again, that will be quite meaningful for many students.
On the calculator-free section, number sense was important. The abilities to calculate in your head and switch from decimals to fractions and vice versa will pay dividends. Surprisingly some of the science items tested outside knowledge. Students who understand that when a ball is thrown into the air, it will have a zero velocity at its apex, will be able to instantly solve questions that may take other students a considerable amount of time.
This new PSAT is harder than the most recently administered PSAT, but not nearly as hard as the December problem set indicated it would be. Globally, this new PSAT is comparable in difficulty to the ACT, although it remains distinct in a number of ways, predominately in the manner in which it assesses math fluency. The timing difference between the PSAT and ACT is profound, and may influence whether students pursue an SAT or ACT path.
Now that we have a full PSAT in hand, we will be able to begin to coach students this summer who want to shoot for National Merit in October. We still cannot predict how this test will be scored until the College Board releases provisional scoring tables later this summer. We do know the College Board backed off from a PSAT that might have sent students running in droves for the ACT. What approach will it take in regards to the SAT? The test writers have 6-8 weeks to answer that question. We’ll be waiting with baited breath for the first full SAT practice test in May, and we promise to keep you fully apprised of all the updates as they come.