Getting Up to Speed with the ACT, SAT, and PSAT
Perhaps you’ve been so engrossed with the Democratic/Republican conventions and presidential campaigns, upcoming Olympic events, and adorable cat videos that you forgot that it’s August, which means that school and its entourage of accompanying activities are either upon us or right around the corner. As we consider college admissions and the maneuverings of the College Board and ACT to capture market share, what are the most important takeaways for you to keep in mind?
ACT: Don’t sweat the essay, and ration your materials appropriately.
First in line, initiating the standardized testing cycle for the 2016-17 year, is the ACT, with its first test in September. We have written about the steadily increasing difficulty, especially of math and science outside knowledge, but the most noticeable change – the ACT essay score – is also the least significant for the vast swath of students. The ACT essay’s return to a 2-12 score is evidence of an unsuccessful, yearlong attempt to win institutions over to the 36 scale. Students applying to colleges this fall might be submitting the spring 2015, fall 2015, or fall 2016 essay scores – each with a different scoring system – which makes it exceedingly difficult for colleges to compare students’ ACT essays. To date, the ACT has not announced a table comparing the three different essay scores, and colleges have expressed no interest in attempting to create one organically. Our advice has been to take the essay (since some colleges may still require it) but to focus the most attention on the composite score sections (English, math, reading, and science).
The ACT published a new Official ACT Prep Guide with updated tests reflecting the test changes (comparison passages for reading, six (instead of seven) science passages, and the new essay format). The guide has three tests instead of the previous five, so students will want to make sure to use them wisely. The previous Guide to the ACT can still be a valuable resource, but has several outdated features with the reading, science, and essay sections. If you plan on using third party books to prepare, make sure to spread out your real ACT tests, so that you get consistent practice with actual ACT tests.
The College Board: Ration your materials appropriately, don’t sweat the essay, and consult your colleges about SAT subject tests.
The College Board is beginning its first full year of collecting data on its new test, although it has stated that it will be several more cycles before it uses that data to determine student scores, relying for the time being on research derived data. Colleges seem to have accepted the College Board’s SAT/ACT concordance table despite howls of protest from the ACT, which views the table as comparing apples to oranges. Colleges and universities need a way to compare the nation’s two most popular standardized tests, and have no other choice but to take the College Board at its word.
The College Board has not released any new material, so students who are continuing their test prep will need to take stock of remaining materials and use them wisely in addition to other third-party material. Students currently have access to four practice SATs, one PSAT, several apps, and the online platform on Khan Academy. There were rumors that the College Board said that it would release an additional test (likely one of its Question-Answer-Service releases) in July, but that has not yet happened.
Like the ACT, the College Board is facing a challenge of convincing institutions that its essay is worth using for admissions purposes. Of institutions reporting their policies to the College Board, a small portion requires or recommends the essay. If colleges and universities do decide to place greater emphasis on the SAT and ACT essays, they will require many years’ worth of data showing the correlation between essay score and freshman year performance. Still, since about half of colleges have not reported to the College Board or ACT their use of the essay in admissions, students will want to take the essay at least once.
The College Board is also struggling to drum up interest in its subject tests. Fewer and fewer colleges and universities are requiring the additional tests, although many competitive schools still recommend them. And when a competitive school recommends something, students would do well to heed that recommendation.
PSAT/NMSQT: If aiming for National Merit, shoot beyond the cutoff score and keep in mind the additional requirements.
For juniors, the PSAT/NMSQT test will roll out in mid-October with little change from the previous year. The big question on everyone’s lips is what the anticipated semi-finalist cutoff score will be for the new test. Our schools reported to us that the cutoff for commended status (which doesn’t bring any scholarship but does recognize achievement on the test) for the class of 2017 was a selection index of 209 out of 228, compared with the class of 2016’s 202 out of 240. With a higher cutoff for commended status, it would make sense to expect a higher cutoff score for class of 2017 semi-finalists than for the class of 2016.
Additionally, students who are anticipating being nominated semi-finalists must take an SAT and receive a comparable score with their junior year PSAT (see p. 8 of the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT). They do not need to take the optional essay in order to have a valid score. Previously, this had not been an issue as the SAT essay was required, and most PSAT students went on to take the SAT. This year, since some PSAT students are considering the ACT instead, students will want to confirm that they complete all requirements.
Overall, this is one of the quieter periods for the test preparation industry. No massive rollouts of new tests or sections by either testing company. Still, there are enough small changes to keep things interesting. As the summer turns into fall, we’ll be sure to keep you apprised to new information as it comes available.