Apr 6, 2015

College Board releases first practice version of the new PSAT—now what?

As part of the official ramp-up to the “redesigned” SAT (rSAT) set to debut in March of 2016, the College Board recently released the first full-length practice version of the new PSAT/NMSQT® and posted a downloadable test booklet complete with detailed answer explanations on its website.

And at first blush, it appears that the College Board may have backed away from what looked to be a terrifically difficult college entrance exam designed to drive increasing numbers of college-bound high school students straight to its Midwestern rival, the ACT.

“[W]e found this test to be remarkably easier than the practice PSAT content the College Board released in late December,” wrote Jed Applerouth, of Applerouth Tutoring Services, in an article posted on his company’s website.

Applerouth goes on to explain that the problem set released at the end of last year was “shocking” in terms of level of difficulty and much more challenging than the first round of practice problems released in April of 2014.

More importantly, it looked like the rSAT was on track to be more difficult than either the current SAT or the ACT.  In fact, it appeared that the College Board was reshaping sections of the SAT to be like its highly-profitable Advanced Placement (AP) test—a chilling prospect to students with no AP background or training.

After the December release, experts in the test-prep industry  began agreeing with Applerouth and college advisers began speeding up the process of shifting students away from the SAT in favor of the ACT—a more comfortable, known quantity among college entrance exams.

And it appears the College Board may have noticed.

Whether test-designers responded to criticism or simply backed away from trying to market a harder test isn’t clear.  But the good news is that the new sample PSAT shows signs of an easing in difficulty within the SAT product line, which proposes to stretch all the way back to 8th and 9th graders preparing for tests the College Board hopes to market to states and school districts for state-wide assessments.

In fall 2015, students will have a first crack at the redesigned PSAT/NMSQT and test their ability to succeed at the redesigned SAT.  By all accounts, the new test is harder than the PSAT administered last October but it’s not nearly as challenging as earlier releases suggested.

Still for most college advisers, the decision to push the ACT over the rSAT seems almost certain.  The only remaining piece to the puzzle is how colleges will view the rSAT.  

It’s possible that more selective institutions might favor the additional rigor of the new test and push high-achieving students in the direction of the rSAT by making their preferences known through “recommendations” or alterations in Score Choice policies requiring full disclosure of all tests taken.

In the coming months, the challenge for the College Board will be to shift emphasis away from the old test, set to end in January 2016.  This means developing an all-new product complete with concordance tables comparing the rSAT with the current Sat as well as with the ACT.  It also means marketing the product to both colleges and test takers.  

Although there has been an interesting up-tick in the number of institutions electing to go test-optional for next year, colleges have been largely slow to react to changes in the test-taking landscape.  But it is their preferences and/or requirements which will guide test-taking strategies for the high school Class of 2017 and beyond.

Already families are investing in expensive test prep programs targeting one test or another—including the redesigned PSAT/NMSQT.  And colleges and universities need to be paying attention to what’s going on at the College Board to make their wishes—if they have any—known sooner rather than later.

But if the past dictates the future, those with the most important opinions could be among the last voices to be heard.

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