COVID-19 has created chaos in SAT and ACT testing since March. Now the PSAT is being swept up into the vortex, as well. The PSAT will not be cancelled on a national basis, but it is being cancelled at many schools, and the cancellations are particularly high in states or counties with continuing stay-at-home orders. Below we examine the potential impact on the National Merit Scholarship Program for the class of 2022.
Is College Board making any changes?
Rather than seeing the PSAT cancelled outright, College Board is trying to provide schools with additional options. It recently added a January 26th, 2021 test date and allows high schools to offer the test on any or all of the 4 PSAT dates (10/14, 10/17, 10/29, and 1/26). Students may only take the PSAT once in their junior year, and high schools determine when the test will be given.
Will the PSAT be fair if it is offered on so many dates?
The PSAT has suffered from underinvestment by College Board. The exam has seen far more discarded questions per test, for example, than the SAT. The reduced difficulty and score range on the PSAT also make it hard to differentiate the elite National Merit students. This has led to unfortunate swings in scores based on which form code a student is given. If College Board needs to provide extra form codes for a slate of winter PSATs, we would expect to see more problems arise.
Can October and January results be compared for National Merit?
Students taking the January test will have a slight advantage versus early testers. Skills tend to improve with time, and even several months can make difference in PSAT scores.
Does this mean National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs will be higher for the class of 2022?
Not necessarily. January testers will be only one factor. The overall number of test-takers will also matter, and we expect to see fewer students taking the PSAT this year. The same number of Semifinalists is allocated to a state whether 100 students take the exam or 100,000. The allocations are made based on historical figures of high school students within the state. Of course the cutoff will be much lower if 100 student take the test instead of 100,000. Lower testing could lead to lower scores.
The rules NMSC uses for determining how many students can take advantage of Alternate Entry through submission of SAT scores will also impact scores. The more lenient the rules this year, the more likely cutoffs will go up. Students submitting SAT scores have a greater ability to prepare and to repeat testing.
Fluctuations in test difficulty and scaling drive the most wide-scale changes in most years. We know that scores for the class of 2021 were unusually low because of a flawed test form, so we would normally expect a “bounce-back” in cutoffs this coming year. Overall, I am expecting modest improvements in SAT score that will not necessarily be consistent from state to state.
Why doesn’t College Board just cancel the PSAT?
The PSAT matters to College Board for several reasons. First, approximately 3.5 million students take the test each October, with many of those exam fees paid by schools or states. Second, the PSAT is an entry point for the SAT. It has long been an advantage for College Board in its competition with ACT. Third, the PSAT is a rich source of student data that College Board sells to colleges. Parents with older children are familiar with the flood of mail from colleges once PSAT results are in. Most students opt-in to the Student Search Service when they register for the PSAT and include targeting data valuable to colleges. Interests, intended major, self-reported grades, and college preferences are just a few of the data points that College Board collects — in addition to the PSAT score itself. Colleges can purchase the list of students most relevant to their institutions. A small liberal arts college, for example, can avoid marketing to future engineers interested in attending a large university. The PSAT plays a useful role in the matching function — a role that is lucrative for College Board.
Would the National Merit Scholarship Program itself be cancelled for the class of 2022?
This seems improbable given that there are alternatives. Even an unfortunate situation of a limited number of students in a state being able to test is not unprecedented. In “ACT states,” it’s not uncommon to see a much lower proportion of schools offering the PSAT. It would be an unpopular decision, but NMSC might decide to simply ignore students who were not able to test.
Alternate Entry to National Merit
Every year students miss the PSAT for legitimate reasons — a storm closure, for example, or illness. In these cases, National Merit has allowed students to seek approval for Alternate Entry — essentially, taking the SAT instead of the PSAT. The scale of cancellations this year, however, could overwhelm National Merit’s normal procedures. Alternate Entry on a wide scale would also exacerbate the problem that the PSAT and SAT are different tests with different scales. In theory, a 750 on one exam is meant to represent a 750 on the other. In practice, it is far less simple. If National Merit also allows students to use an ACT for Alternate Entry, the problem grows even worse. Fairness becomes a real issue when students are taking different tests at different times. Still, some form of Alternate Entry may be the least bad option.
In the past, allowances for alternate entry were “because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance, but meets all other requirements for NMSC program participation.” NMSC has told at least one school district that tests cancelled due to the pandemic would be an extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, if a school simply decides not to offer the PSAT, a student may not automatically have a claim to an alternate entry. The student must get sign-off from both their high school and NMSC.
Isn’t it unfair if students in one state can test while those in another cannot?
In the Semifinalist competition, students are only competing against other in-state students. This means that there is no reason to expect that cutoff changes will be uniform. If 98% of a state’s students are able to test, there might be no impact on the Semifinalist cutoff. If only 20% of a state’s students are able to test, we would expect the cutoff to fall dramatically. A lower cutoff, of course, doesn’t help the 80% of students not able to test. National Merit clearly faces some difficult choices.