Understanding Your PSAT Scores in 2020
October PSAT scores will be released in early December (the exact date varies by school). If your student took the test in October, we’ve got a handy guide to understanding their scores right here. If you haven’t taken the test yet, you’re not alone! COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about schooling this year, and PSAT test dates are no exception.
PSAT Test Dates in 2020-21
Usually, the PSAT (a preliminary SAT administered by the College Board) is given once a year. Most school systems give the test in October, but some do a special spring testing for 10th-graders.
Your student’s school or school system decides who takes the PSAT; most schools offer it to 11th-graders and 10th-graders, and many offer it to their 9th-graders as well. The fall test is called the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), because 11th-grade scores are automatically entered into the competition for the National Merit Scholarship. Spring administrations for sophomores are called the PSAT-10, even though the test isn’t any different in terms of difficulty or length from the fall test.
In a normal school year, the number of students taking the PSAT is enormous. During the 2019-2020 school year, 3.8 million students took the PSAT or PSAT/NMSQT. About 16.8 million students were enrolled in public and private high schools in the United States during that year. That means almost 1 in 4 high school students across the country took the PSAT in the 2019-2020 school year.
Even that number is lower than the all-time high in the 2018-2019 year, when 4.3 million students took the PSAT. Why the dip? It’s likely because spring PSAT 10 testing, which makes up a small but significant part of the total PSAT numbers, couldn’t happen in March 2020 due to COVID. The College Board won’t release data from the fall 2020 test until the school year is finished, so we don’t know exactly how much COVID-19 affected students’ ability to take the PSAT in October. The PSAT, like the SAT and ACT, is currently a paper-only test; there’s no remote option for students stuck at home.
What do my student’s PSAT scores mean?
If your student was able to take the PSAT in October, they’ll be receiving their scores sometime in the first few weeks of December. The score report you’ll receive isn’t a full-length diagnostic of your student’s performance (for that, you’ll have to go to their College Board account), but there’s still a lot of useful information in it.
The PSAT and SAT were redesigned together in 2016, so they’re more similar than ever. The SAT’s scoring scale is fairly well-known: students’ scores will fall somewhere between 400 and 1600 (they can score a possible 800 points in the combined Reading and Writing sections and a possible 800 points in the combined Math sections). The PSAT is shorter and slightly lower in difficulty, and because of that the PSAT is scored out of 1520 points: Reading and Writing give us 760 possible points and the two Math sections give us another 760.
The other thing to remember is that the PSAT, like the SAT, is a standardized test. Students’ raw scores – the number of questions they get right in each section – go through several conversions before they appear in their final form. The College Board’s Understanding Your PSAT Score resource shows you exactly how raw scores are scaled on the 2019 test.
The first page of your student’s score report gives you the composite and section scores for their PSAT.
PSAT Score Reports also contain percentiles, which rank your student against a comparative sample. A percentile is the percent of students who scored lower than a given score. The PSAT uses two percentiles, only one of which is on the report parents and students receive. The other one is only accessible online.
- Nationally Representative Sample: This is the percentile located on the front page of the report. It’s not a comparison between students who took the test in 2019. Rather, it’s a measure derived from a “standard research study of U.S. students in the 10th or 11th grade and are weighted to represent all U.S. students in those grades, regardless of whether they typically take the PSAT/NMSQT or the PSAT 10.” Essentially, it’s meant to represent a typical high school student.
- PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT User Sample: This percentile is located on your student’s online score sample, and it compares their performance to other students who took the test within the last three years. Generally speaking, the User Sample percentile is a bit lower than the Nationally Representative Sample percentile.
Benchmarks and Test Scores
The College Board measures every student’s score against its college readiness benchmarks and notes their progress on the report. Underneath each section score, you’ll see either a green checkmark or a yellow exclamation point, letting you know whether your student is on track to handle college-level work. Benchmarks are grade-level specific on the PSAT. If your student is in the 10th-grade, that green checkmark under Math doesn’t mean that they are ready for college math right now. It means that the College Board predicts they’ll be ready when the time comes, provided they keep working and improving.
Test scores are located right beneath the benchmarks. These test scores are standardized, and they’re used to calculate the National Merit Index on the next page. Test scores come from a student’s raw score, and they’re used to calculate the student’s score out of 1520 as well.
National Merit Index
Every student’s test report comes with a National Merit Index number. That number is calculated from the test scores on the previous page. The National Merit Scholarship is open to all 11th-graders who are U.S. citizens and who took the PSAT; that’s why the PSAT is called the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in the 11th grade.
Every student’s report has a National Merit Index, but if your student’s index (a 3-digit number) has an asterisk next to it, then they don’t meet all of the other qualifications for consideration. It’s impossible to know exactly what index number a student has to have to be selected as a Commended Student or a Semi-finalist, as the cutoff is determined by the scores of the current students. Students who are moving on to the next stage in the scholarship process will be informed next September.
Full Online Reports & Question-Level Feedback
As the report parents and students receive is just a teaser report, it’s important to log on to the College Board’s website to access more information about your student’s scores.
Your student’s PSAT report will feature general advice on where to go from here, but to access specific tips and content for improvement, they will need to look up the full report on their College Board account.
The question-level feedback shows the answer key, what your student answered, and the question difficulty level. You can learn some things about your student by looking at the difficulty level of questions missed. If your student got all of the easier questions right but struggled with the harder ones, then it’s possible they haven’t yet gotten to the content in the more difficult questions. However, if they struggle more with the lower-difficulty questions, then it’s possible they need a refresher (or that they’re rushing!).
My student wasn’t able to take the PSAT in October. What should I do?
If your student wasn’t able to take the PSAT in October because of COVID, they haven’t missed their chance entirely. The College Board added a January test date for the first time ever in response to school closures in October. Unlike other spring test dates (which are only for the PSAT 10), the January date is open to schools who want to give their 11th-graders the PSAT/NMSQT. They can also choose to give the test to 10th- and 9th-graders. You should contact your school’s main office to see if they plan to administer the PSAT in January.
If your student is taking the PSAT in January, they’ll get their scores back in March. In that case, you may want to bookmark this article, because the College Board has stated that the spring score report will have all of the same information as the fall report does. If your student would like to practice for the January PSAT or just wants to get a practice score, we’re offering PSAT practice tests throughout the month of January.
Next Steps: Getting Ready for the SAT or ACT
For high school juniors, now is time to start making an SAT/ACT prep plan. Even if your student isn’t taking the PSAT until January, it’s helpful to start making a plan for the college admissions test now, rather than wait until PSAT scores come back in the spring. While PSAT scores can be helpful in the planning process, they’re not a prerequisite to taking the SAT or ACT, and having a plan in place now will help your student do their best. To learn more about the PSAT, SAT, and ACT and the differences between the tests you can attend our upcoming webinar: All About PSAT, SAT, & ACT on Monday, December 16th at 8PM EST. To register, just visit our website here.
Happy Holiday Savings!
This month only, save up to $1290 when you enroll in 10+ hours of SAT or ACT prep. This is a great opportunity to maximize your scores and your savings. Visit our Holiday Savings page today or call 866-789-7737 to learn more. Offer ends December 23.