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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
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The Road to College: Making Sense of the PSATs

I’m going to focus this week on a timely matter: the return of the PSAT scores to juniors, sophomores, and perhaps even freshmen at high schools in the territory.

The PSAT is an annual rite of passage that matters a great deal for some, at least a little for most, and really not at all (yet) for others. Bear with me while I offer some background, then try to explain what I mean about whether the PSAT really matters for you.

For starters, the PSAT is formally the PSAT/NMSQT: the Preliminary SAT (which was once the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, and now just the SAT)/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

SAT really stands for nothing anymore because the test has been so widely and consistently criticized as correlating with nothing more so than a student’s socioeconomic background. But the NMSQT part can lead to an enormous amount for money for 11th graders who are especially good at these sorts of tests.

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Here’s how that works: The PSAT, like the SAT, is divided into three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. The unconscionable aspect of the PSAT “Writing” is that it consists entirely of multiple-choice questions about how to improve sentences and paragraphs. There is, in other words, no opportunity at all for students to do any writing on the Writing section.

This reality is especially galling in that the first thing students must do on the SAT itself is write a 25-minute timed essay in response to a prompt that falls from the clear blue Caribbean sky. College Board thus provides no chance for students to practice on the PSAT the very first thing they will have to do on the SAT. Does that bother anyone else?

Moving right along, the Critical Reading, Math and Writing sections are scored on a 20-80 scale, with 20 indicating the ability to get one’s name more or less right (trust me, over 30 years I’ve seen kids fail to grid their own names into the spaces correctly), and 80 indicating that the student answered every single question right on that part of the PSAT. (Over 30 years I’ve seen that happen, too; four times in recent years at Antilles.)

For those trying to predict an SAT from the PSAT, just add a zero to each score: My own PSATs 35 years ago were 53 Verbal (back before that aspect was rechristened Critical Reading) and 60 Math, with no Writing score at all.

The Writing back then was a different test called the TSWE, the Test of Standard Written English, which morphed into the Achievement Test in Writing, which became the SAT-II Subject Test in Writing, before it became a required appendage to the SAT five years ago, when the Big Cheese on the University of California system threatened to drop the test from his whole system.

Facing the potential loss of its largest testing market and millions of dollars in revenue, the College Board blinked first in this staring contest and added Writing, lengthening the test to more than four hours, in a circumstance where most colleges still don‘t use the Writing section for admissions decisions. Go figure.

Back to PSATs, mine in particular. By some standards, they were good enough; but by two personal metrics, they stunk.

First, they were lower than those of all of my closest friends. Sure, I’d taken them on the Saturday morning of a football game I had to quarterback, and I may not have had my mind completely on the bubbles in front of my No. 2 pencil, but I was too competitive to let all my buddies beat me. Second, they were way low for the kinds of colleges I was considering.

What did I do? I got a tutor. I spent about 14 Sunday afternoons with a guy with a foreign accent who made me work my tail off when I could have been shooting baskets. In the end I got a 640 Verbal and 690 Math, right on the medians for what by then had become my first-choice college.

So what’s the lesson in all of this?

If you’re a Junior, take your PSAT results seriously. Study the detailed score report. See where you can do better. Consider taking the SAT Prep course offered at Antilles (more on that in another column and on a radio show early in the New Year), find an individual tutor, or at least order the big, fat book or the online course from www.collegeboard.com and make yourself practice this stuff.

If you’ve done especially well and have a high selection index, you may move ahead as a National Merit Semifinalist. If you go the distance to becoming a National Merit Scholar, you will earn $2,500 toward college expenses. More important, you will be on the radar for one of the many colleges that offer huge merit awards of their own for National Merit Scholars.

An Antilles graduate from last June is currently at Denison University on just such a full-tuition scholarship, saving his teacher parents $37,000 a year–real money.

Now if you’re a sophomore or a freshmen, take the PSAT seriously, but not too seriously. Some schools have 9th graders take the PSAT, a test designed for 11th graders, for the exposure of what is, in actuality, a PPPSAT, a Pre-Practice-Preliminary SAT.

For younger students, it’s worth taking a look at the scores, seeing where you did well or not so well. Then please turn off–or at least limit–the electronic chatter of facebooking, internet surfing, texting, and video-gaming in your lives.

Rededicate yourself to doing all of your homework as well as you can, then find books you can and will read for pleasure, and engage in more work with math than your school assigns. (My own way of working on the latter was to love sports so much that I worked with numbers every day just by reading the batting averages, winning percentages, and other statistics of my favorite teams. Get interested in stocks and bonds. Or learn how to be a smarter shopper!)

It’s my recommendation that juniors prepare to take the SAT, at the earliest, in March, followed by the ACT in April. In a latter column, I’ll explain my thoughts on the best testing calendar to pursue.

Sophomores and freshmen should wait at least a year. In the meantime, thanks for reading, tune in to my radio show, and Happy Holidays!

Chris Teare is College Counselor at Antilles School on St. Thomas. Hear him host “Making the College Choice” each Wednesday from 4-5 pm on Radio One, AM 1000.

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I’m going to focus this week on a timely matter: the return of the PSAT scores to juniors, sophomores, and perhaps even freshmen at high schools in the territory.

The PSAT is an annual rite of passage that matters a great deal for some, at least a little for most, and really not at all (yet) for others. Bear with me while I offer some background, then try to explain what I mean about whether the PSAT really matters for you.

For starters, the PSAT is formally the PSAT/NMSQT: the Preliminary SAT (which was once the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, and now just the SAT)/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

SAT really stands for nothing anymore because the test has been so widely and consistently criticized as correlating with nothing more so than a student’s socioeconomic background. But the NMSQT part can lead to an enormous amount for money for 11th graders who are especially good at these sorts of tests.

Here’s how that works: The PSAT, like the SAT, is divided into three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. The unconscionable aspect of the PSAT “Writing” is that it consists entirely of multiple-choice questions about how to improve sentences and paragraphs. There is, in other words, no opportunity at all for students to do any writing on the Writing section.

This reality is especially galling in that the first thing students must do on the SAT itself is write a 25-minute timed essay in response to a prompt that falls from the clear blue Caribbean sky. College Board thus provides no chance for students to practice on the PSAT the very first thing they will have to do on the SAT. Does that bother anyone else?

Moving right along, the Critical Reading, Math and Writing sections are scored on a 20-80 scale, with 20 indicating the ability to get one’s name more or less right (trust me, over 30 years I’ve seen kids fail to grid their own names into the spaces correctly), and 80 indicating that the student answered every single question right on that part of the PSAT. (Over 30 years I’ve seen that happen, too; four times in recent years at Antilles.)

For those trying to predict an SAT from the PSAT, just add a zero to each score: My own PSATs 35 years ago were 53 Verbal (back before that aspect was rechristened Critical Reading) and 60 Math, with no Writing score at all.

The Writing back then was a different test called the TSWE, the Test of Standard Written English, which morphed into the Achievement Test in Writing, which became the SAT-II Subject Test in Writing, before it became a required appendage to the SAT five years ago, when the Big Cheese on the University of California system threatened to drop the test from his whole system.

Facing the potential loss of its largest testing market and millions of dollars in revenue, the College Board blinked first in this staring contest and added Writing, lengthening the test to more than four hours, in a circumstance where most colleges still don‘t use the Writing section for admissions decisions. Go figure.

Back to PSATs, mine in particular. By some standards, they were good enough; but by two personal metrics, they stunk.

First, they were lower than those of all of my closest friends. Sure, I’d taken them on the Saturday morning of a football game I had to quarterback, and I may not have had my mind completely on the bubbles in front of my No. 2 pencil, but I was too competitive to let all my buddies beat me. Second, they were way low for the kinds of colleges I was considering.

What did I do? I got a tutor. I spent about 14 Sunday afternoons with a guy with a foreign accent who made me work my tail off when I could have been shooting baskets. In the end I got a 640 Verbal and 690 Math, right on the medians for what by then had become my first-choice college.

So what’s the lesson in all of this?

If you’re a Junior, take your PSAT results seriously. Study the detailed score report. See where you can do better. Consider taking the SAT Prep course offered at Antilles (more on that in another column and on a radio show early in the New Year), find an individual tutor, or at least order the big, fat book or the online course from www.collegeboard.com and make yourself practice this stuff.

If you’ve done especially well and have a high selection index, you may move ahead as a National Merit Semifinalist. If you go the distance to becoming a National Merit Scholar, you will earn $2,500 toward college expenses. More important, you will be on the radar for one of the many colleges that offer huge merit awards of their own for National Merit Scholars.

An Antilles graduate from last June is currently at Denison University on just such a full-tuition scholarship, saving his teacher parents $37,000 a year--real money.

Now if you’re a sophomore or a freshmen, take the PSAT seriously, but not too seriously. Some schools have 9th graders take the PSAT, a test designed for 11th graders, for the exposure of what is, in actuality, a PPPSAT, a Pre-Practice-Preliminary SAT.

For younger students, it’s worth taking a look at the scores, seeing where you did well or not so well. Then please turn off--or at least limit--the electronic chatter of facebooking, internet surfing, texting, and video-gaming in your lives.

Rededicate yourself to doing all of your homework as well as you can, then find books you can and will read for pleasure, and engage in more work with math than your school assigns. (My own way of working on the latter was to love sports so much that I worked with numbers every day just by reading the batting averages, winning percentages, and other statistics of my favorite teams. Get interested in stocks and bonds. Or learn how to be a smarter shopper!)

It’s my recommendation that juniors prepare to take the SAT, at the earliest, in March, followed by the ACT in April. In a latter column, I’ll explain my thoughts on the best testing calendar to pursue.

Sophomores and freshmen should wait at least a year. In the meantime, thanks for reading, tune in to my radio show, and Happy Holidays!

Chris Teare is College Counselor at Antilles School on St. Thomas. Hear him host “Making the College Choice” each Wednesday from 4-5 pm on Radio One, AM 1000.