New PSAT Captures the Hearts and Memes of Today’s Teens
Last Wednesday the revised PSAT was administered to hundreds of thousands of high school students across the nation. This test was the first to reflect the updated format and content set to appear on the revised SAT in March. We’ve spent time processing this test with our students, particularly those who were preparing for a score high enough to place them in the running for the National Merit Scholarship. There is a general consensus that this new PSAT was largely in line with the SAT and PSAT materials made publically available by the College Board.
The student feedback has armed us with insights about the official test content and how students feel about that content. One particularly enlightening and fun aspect of the student response are the hilarious memes that have surfaced online, making light of some of the test items. We’ll first review the student feedback we’ve received about the new test, section by section, and then share a few of the clever online comments we’ve seen students post.
There were few surprises on the Writing section. Some students found it slightly easier than the practice content, while others found it to be a timing challenge and slightly harder. Averaging out the comments, it seems like Writing was very closely aligned with the practice content available online, emphasizing rhetorical skills, transitions, and the logical flow of sentences and passages.
The Critical Reading passages were more challenging than on previous PSATs, reflecting the College Board’s increased commitment to enhanced textual complexity. Like the four SAT practice tests made available by the College Board, this PSAT boasted one particularly hard passage. In this case, the higher difficulty passage was a Frederick Douglass speech from 1852. This history passage and its associated questions required students to employ their best critical reading skills. Many of our students found it easier to save this challenging passage for the end. The active reading skills that we teach our students proved more useful than ever on this new, more challenging test.
While received feedback from some students who felt quite confident about their performance on the test as a whole, other students are still adjusting to some of the changes. We heard complaints about the 60-minute length of the Reading test and the difficulty of pacing oneself on this now-longer reading section. Others found that the charts, tables, and graphs questions–the College Board’s foray into ACT Science-like content–were significantly harder on this PSAT than those on the provided sample test.
The two Math sections on the PSAT elicited different student reactions. The vast majority of students had concerns about section 3, the no-calculator Math section. The new test allows only 25 minutes for the 17 non-calculator math items. Several students wrote in online forums that they had more time to fill in their personal information than they had to take the no-calculator Math section. This section demanded much harder hand calculations than had appeared on the SAT or PSAT practice tests, making things particularly difficult for students who are accustomed to relying heavily on their calculators. Long division, multiplication and division of multiple decimals proved to be very time-intensive for many students. Additionally, some of the more complex algebra items surprised and challenged students.
Relatively few students reported struggling with section 4, the calculator-permitted math section. However, the long word problems on this section open the door to a lot of reading comprehension errors; we’ll be monitoring student performance on this section when scores come in. Some students happily noted that the strategies we’d taught them for SAT Math were still quite useful.
Student reflections on the test
Some of the best things to come from this current PSAT are the student-created memes, which have proliferated on Tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/search/psat. Across the country, students have been logging in to post their thoughts, often recalling the most intricate details of the test’s passages and questions. They then integrate these details into running jokes and memes that reference test items concerning the irony of Spanish moss (i.e., neither Spanish, nor moss), why wolf pups refuse to look you in the eye, a dinosaur affectionately called “big nose horn face,” and the exploits of Thad the intern who broke the bank buying water and gourmet cookies. Here are a few examples from the Thad meme:
- Thad: spent $45 dollars on overpriced cookies and water #yolo
- Donald Trump may be worth over 4 billion dollars, but Thad spent $45 on just water and cookies
- I need a sugar Thaddy to spend $45 on water and cookies for me
- I would buy 21 waters and 25 cookies just to be with you: Best PSAT 2015 pick up lines
- Darth Vader: Come to the dark side, we have cookies. Me: No you don’t, Thad bought them all
The Washington Post wrote a great piece on this emergent phenomenon. Three cheers to students everywhere for maintaining a healthy sense of humor in spite of all the anxiety created by changes in testing formats this year.
The new PSAT will be administered one final time on Wednesday, October 28th for those schools who opted for the late administration. We still do not know how long it will take the College Board to score and release the tests. Many high schools have already scheduled their PSAT return and feedback nights in early December, but there is no guarantee that the College Board will be able to meet this timeline. The College Board has communicated that it may need until early January to release the PSAT scores; thus schools might want to be conservative in planning their giveback dates or plan an alternate date in the event of delays.
When scores are returned, many students will want to know if they are within the range of National Merit Scholarship consideration. This year, the National Merit cutoff scores will be based on a new Selection Index, which can be calculated by adding up the three section scores (each on a scale of 8-38) and multiplying the sum by 2. This gives a maximum possible Selection score of 228, a number relatively close to the familiar 240 point maximum scaled score of the old PSAT. National Merit cutoff scores will vary by state, and we expect the scores to range from the high 180s to the low 210s, based on the performance of students in each state.
Overall, we were pleased to learn that the College Board largely kept the revised PSAT consistent with the practice materials released earlier this year. We are optimistic that the College Board will follow a similar pattern for the new SAT, when it officially launches in March 2016.