On Wednesday, October 14th, students sat down with their No. 2 pencils and calculators to get their first crack at the new PSAT. As every college hopeful who’s done their due diligence knows, College Board will be unveiling a shiny new SAT in March 2016, and this year’s PSAT is a glimpse into the future of what the new SAT will hold.
The PSAT is the SAT’s small, annoying but less threatening sibling. It acts partly as a warmup for the SAT and partly as a gatekeeper for millions of dollars in scholarship funding – test takers who stand out on the PSAT qualify for National Merit Scholarship support.
Like the 2016 SAT, this year’s PSAT has gotten a makeover. Some of the changes have to do with the test taking process: Colleges Board has made the new version 35 minutes longer, to much groaning of high-school sophomores and juniors everywhere, but has also cut down the number of multiple choice answers from five to four and has ended the tradition of penalizing students for guessing incorrectly. Many of the changes also involve a shifting emphasis in the actual content of the test: this year’s PSAT focuses more on data analysis, problem solving and using context, at the expense of less practical skills like understanding geometric problems and recognizing obscure vocabulary words.
Predictably, the overhaul of the PSAT and SAT has prompted much controversy and hand-wringing. Supporters of the new SAT have praised College Board for creating a test more in line with the day-to-day material teachers cover in the classroom and for integrating the math and verbal aspects of the testing experience. More skeptically minded observers have argued that the new test, designed to fit more closely with Common Core standards, disproportionately benefits more well-prepared students and native English speakers while covering a narrower range of topics. And parents and students have been anxious and uncertain about what the new format means for them.
So this month’s release of the new PSAT offered test takers their first look at how this brave new world of standardized testing was going to go down in practice. For the first time since the changes to the PSAT were announced, students were able to lock horns with the new PSAT, get a taste of what’s to come with the 2016 SAT and then weigh in with their opinions on the matter based on their experience actually taking the test.
And weigh in they did. Despite the fact that all students taking the PSAT sign a pledge not to discuss the contents of the test, #PSAT became a trending topic on Twitter almost as soon as the test was over. Plot twist #1: a lot of high-school students aren’t that good at keeping secrets and don’t feel that much loyalty towards College Board.
Plot twist #2 is that students’ reaction to the new PSAT turned out to be a little different than that of educational experts.
Among students who took the PSAT on the 14th, the most controversial point ended up being not the new focus on Common Core content but rather a scenario in one of the test’s word problems. Specifically, the problem featured a protagonist who spent $45 on water and cookies.
Students took to Twitter to express their outrage over this apparent act of price gouging:
— Tedy (@Tedyred) October 14, 2015
— gabby! (@gabbyy223) October 14, 2015
Cashier : May I help you? Me: Just a Cookie and Water. Cashier: Okay , $45 Me: Tf you say? #PSAT
— Ben Michaux (@bpmichaux12) October 14, 2015
— Erik Larsen (@ugherik) October 14, 2015
Of course, many students also noticed the new PSAT’s increased emphasis on graphs and data analysis, a part of the exam some were less thrilled about than others:
— Adorbale Animal Pics (@animalpicsusa) October 15, 2015
— random thoughts (@drichards75) October 15, 2015
And the heavier emphasis on word problems and critical reading also wasn’t lost on test-takers:
— Cory Stewart™ (@EliteHoopa11) October 14, 2015
This year’s reading section also had patriotic themes. In particular, one of the questions apparently discussed Frederick Douglas’ dislike for the Fourth of July:
— PSAT (@PSAT14) October 14, 2015
— $oph (@sophiaflore222) October 14, 2015
i hated the #PSAT as much as Fredrick Douglas hates the 4th of July
— Christian Meza (@ccmezaa) October 14, 2015
Overall, students interviewed by various local and national media outlets were divided over whether the new PSAT was easier or harder than previous versions. Scores will be released in January, so time will tell how this year’s results differ from earlier years’.
The big takeaway, though, seems to be that College Board really has followed through on their promise to make the math and reading sections more integrated and to emphasize general problem solving. It’s likely that students who are most comfortable engaging in analytical thinking that combines math and reading skills will be at an advantage on the revised PSAT while students who are stronger on pure math skills over verbal skills or pure verbal skills over math skills will find the new version more difficult.
Now that the PSAT has come and gone, the countdown to SAT game day begins for high-school juniors. Those preparing for both the upcoming SAT and 2016 PSAT may find that the new format’s stress on more pragmatic, classroom-oriented material makes both tests more “studiable” – gone are the days of desperately poring through lists of arcane vocabulary words in hopes that one of them makes an appearance on test day. On the other hand, students with significant discrepancies between their math and reading abilities (for example, non-native English speakers or students with learning disabilities that impact specifically their reading or math skills) might also discover that the new order of things poses problems that can be mitigated somewhat but not overcome entirely.
In the meantime, though, College Board has been dealing with a more immediate concern than how the retooling of the PSAT will affect students’ scores – namely, the mini-rebellion of test takers who have defiantly taken to Twitter to share the contents of the exam.
Perhaps it’s no great surprise that the rules against sharing test content not only didn’t deter test takers from Tweeting about this year’s problems but actually egged 2015’s test-weary sophomores and juniors on in helping the PSAT go viral. Some PSAT Tweeters even compared themselves to a character featured in the reading section of this year’s test, Herminia, a girl who sparked a political uprising by secretly publishing her revolutionary poems in the El Nacional newspaper against the wishes of her father:
People illegally tweeting about the #PSAT like Herminia illegally publishing her poems in El Nacional
— PSAT 2015 (@PSATof2015) October 14, 2015
College Board, for their part, decided to fight Tweet with Tweet, trying in 140 characters or less to make an argument for honoring the PSAT Secrecy Pledge:
— The College Board (@CollegeBoard) October 14, 2015