Several members of the Compass leadership team — Bruce Reed, Matt Steiner, and I — spent February 19-20 in Newport Beach attending the College Board’s annual Western Regional Forum. We make it a point to never miss any of the important conferences in the college admission and testing space, and we’re especially attentive at a time like this when the major tests are in such a state of flux.
Many important details of the new PSAT and SAT rollout are coming into focus. We’re also receiving strong confirmation of information that had previously been presented as tentative — though we remain a bit concerned timelines and goalposts will be moved again. Highlights of interest:
Practice Tests and Question-and-Answer Service
- The most exciting news for us test prep geeks is that College Board has (wisely) decided to increase the number of practice tests that will be released for the new SAT. For the last year, we’ve been warned that only four practice tests would be available. In a session run jointly by reps from College Board and Khan Academy, we learned of the decision that four additional tests (for a total of eight) will be released (4 of these will be developed by Khan under supervision from College Board).
- The schedule of practice test releases is partially confirmed. The first (and only) mock test for the new PSAT is scheduled for release on March 19 — so approximately seven months in advance of the debut of the first official PSAT in October 2015. The first four of the mock SATs will make their appearance in May, approximately ten months before the first official test debuts in March 2016. The additional four mock tests will likely be released one at a time throughout the remainder of 2015 in such a way as to entice students to continue to engage with Khan Academy.
- Distribution of the first four mock SATs will be via two channels: a new Official SAT Study Guide in hard-copy form, and online through the College Board’s new partnership with Khan Academy, a joint venture of which College Board is extremely proud. The second series of four tests will be available only through the Khan website, but will be downloadable as PDFs. Students will be able to use an app on their phones to snap a picture of their test answer sheet and upload it for instant scoring.
- A total of eight new SAT practice tests, with supposedly/hopefully accurate scaling, is a significant improvement from what was previously promised. We shared our feelings last year at length here and in brief here about how unfavorably the thin body of practice material for the new SAT will compare to the ACT’s long-established canon. We’re now softening on this position a bit, but for the serious prepper in the class of 2017, the ACT is still the safer choice due to its large bank of previously administered tests and the resulting repository of well-calibrated test prep materials.
- Beyond the first official administration of the new test, College Board is committing to the release of live exams on their usual schedule. In 2016, they will release the April “school testing” exam as well as the May, October, and January (2017) exams as they always have through their “Question-and-Answer Service” offering. We are hopeful that by the time the current 9th and 8th graders (high school graduating classes of 2018 and 2019) are coming through their testing cycle, the dust will have settled and we will return to the current equilibrium in which students choose between the SAT and ACT based on accurate practice tests and equally robust test prep curricula and methods.
College Board / Khan Academy
- The Khan Academy partnership continues to be held up by College Board as a game-changer for students, especially those who choose self-directed test prep. College Board is promising that extensive additional content will be made available through Khan and that this content will be as well-calibrated to the actual test as the material being developed by College Board’s in-house experts (who have trained and continue to evaluate the Khan content developers). We are hopeful that this partnership will fulfill its promise and these new resources will be a win for students.
- A beta version of the Khan prep platform for the new SAT will launch in late May, with a more fully built-out set of functionality targeted for release in October of 2015. One of the most important features of the online self-study program is the ability for students to take a diagnostic test and receive a personalized prescription directing their ongoing efforts. The diagnostic tests will initially be the mock SATs, but a promised feature post-PSAT in late 2015 is the ability for students to link their College Board account with their Khan Academy account so that the Khan platform can automatically ingest their PSAT scores and personalize their recommended course of study.
SAT Changes: Scaling, Concordance, Scoring Delays, Interchangeability
- The College Board is attempting a statistical tightrope high-wire act in the way it is developing the scoring of the practice tests, the scoring of the official tests, and the concordance tables that will ultimately allow scores on the new tests to be evaluated against scores from the old test and, finally, against the ACT. The challenges faced by College Board to keep up with their own timelines are evidenced by their decision to release the first practice tests – one PSAT in March, four SATs in May – without the data to convert raw scores to scaled scores. Students taking these early practice tests will initially only be able to tally their total right and wrong answers; they will have to visit Khan Academy in late June or early July (the current estimate of when scales will be released) to convert those raw scores to estimated scaled scores. College Board is simultaneously projecting confidence in the soundness of this work while also admitting that it may be fuzzy. Ultimately the pool of students taking the first official test in March 2016 will be the “gold master” reference group whose performance will be used to establish the final scale. College Board seems to expect and intend that the final scale for the new test will closely align with not only the practice test scaling, but also the old test. This remains to be seen. For students taking practice tests this summer for the new SAT and the ACT in order to make the best choice of which test should be their focus, it’s all going to be a little murky and reliant on a degree of speculation.
- Buyer Beware! Given the above, taking third-party mock practice tests for the new SAT is ill-advised. If the new SAT were a culinary concoction, the College Board’s chefs would admit that it is currently half-baked and that they are still tweaking the recipe. We know the list of ingredients and a rough sense of how the final dish should taste (and how much indigestion it will cause). Test prep companies already hawking their best-guess version and making ostensibly useful recommendations are being irresponsible and self-interested. Observing the behavior of test prep providers during this period of flux is a perfect opportunity to evaluate those companies’ ethics and priorities. It is extremely difficult for the College Board to get the scaling right on a new test; it’s simply impossible for a third party to beat them to it or to do it as well.
- The first official concordance table will be created to compare old and new PSAT scores and is expected to be ready within two to three months of the new PSAT’s debut in Oct 2015. This will be our first solid indication of whether scores on the old and new tests will align closely or if the College Board will be so bold as to push through major changes. The concordance between old and new SAT is projected to be available by summer 2016. A “derived concordance” will also be provided for comparing the ACT to the new SAT. It is synthetic, since it is not based on a common pool of students. Rather, it links new SAT to old SAT and then uses the old SAT and ACT relationship to derive a concordance. We won’t even attempt to guess when a true concordance with the ACT is going to be complete, but one would hope that these testing behemoths will cooperate such that colleges will have the tools they need in time to begin evaluating candidates for admission in the class of 2018 or 2019 cycles.
- Another nod in favor of the ACT is that the College Board’s reporting of scores will be delayed for the first administration of the new SAT in March 2016. Currently, students receive their SAT or ACT scores within just a few weeks of the test date. The March 2016 SAT scores cannot be finalized until the College Board has an opportunity to evaluate the data from the May 2016 test date, as well. Students opting for the new SAT will face the logistical and planning headache of not knowing their score until late May of their junior year. For the typical Compass student seeking to finalize a college list, make college visit plans, decide whether and when to retest, etc., this delay is awkward to say the least. ACT scores will continue to be reported promptly.
- The College Board reps are relatively confident that in the class of 2017 transition year, colleges will accept scores from both the old and new SAT. We have independently received these reports, as well.
PSAT Changes: Structure and Timing, Schedule, Scoring, National Merit
- Not only is the content of the PSAT changing in 2015 to align with the new SAT, there will be important structural changes, too, as compared in the following table. The most significant change, from the student’s perspective, is that the length of the test is increasing by more than 25% to 2 hours and 45 minutes. The time allotted per question is increasing, but it remains to be seen whether that will actually translate into a test that feels less fast-paced. This is because, by all accounts, the amount of text students must digest before answering the questions is expected to increase.
- Historically, the PSAT was offered on both a Wednesday and a Saturday in October, with each high school deciding between one of two national test dates. In this transition year, the College Board has decided not to offer a Saturday PSAT date. The recommended 2015 PSAT will be Wednesday, October 14, with schools having the option to offer the test on an alternate date of October 28. A Saturday alternative is expected to return in 2016. PSAT score release may slide to Jan 2016, but they are still hoping Dec 2015 might be possible.
- 11th graders will have only the October option for the PSAT, but starting in 2016 schools will have the option to administer a spring PSAT to their 10th graders. Dubbed the “PSAT 10,” this test will be identical in structure and scoring to the October PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). Schools will have a multi-week window in the spring when they may choose to offer this test, and it is believed that schools who favor a spring-to-spring slate of assessments will opt for this timing.
- With so much else changing, why not change the PSAT scale as well? As of October 2015, PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 scores will be reported on a 160-760 scale for each of two components: Math and Evidence Based Reading & Writing. This normed-for-10th-grade scale is expected to play nicely with the 200-800 scale for the SAT. Younger students whose schools decide to offer the new “PSAT 8/9” to 8th and 9th graders will receive scores on a scale from 120-720. This “vertical scaling” allows educators to track student progress over time using a consistent scale. And, in case you missed it, the maximum total SAT score will once again be 1600. 2400 is dead, because Critical Reading and Writing are no longer scored separately.
- We have established that the current SAT will suffice as a “confirming” score for National Merit Scholarship standing for those students who score in the 99th percentile on the new PSAT. Top scorers will not be forced to take the new SAT if they have already done well on the current SAT.
We welcome questions and feedback about any of the information discussed above. Meanwhile, we will keep our ear to the ground and will continue evaluating and reporting what we hear. The current 11th graders in the class of 2016 are forgiven for feeling relieved and fortunate that they will emerge from the college admission testing gauntlet without having had to cope with this rather chaotic period of change. 10th graders: hang on for the ride!