The PSAT and National Merit for the Class of 2022

By August 24, 2020 September 1st, 2020 Featured, For Students, National Merit, PSAT

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. We do not expect College Board to provide a list of cancellations, so students will need to be in touch with their schools.

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.

Prioritizing Juniors

Some high schools are trying to preserve the PSAT for juniors by not offering the fall PSAT to sophomores. This would allow them to more easily accomplish social distancing on test day. On the other hand, some schools are devoting resources toward offering a School Day SAT for seniors and will be cancelling the PSAT outright.

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.

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.

Can I take the PSAT at a different school if mine is cancelled?

Most students take the PSAT at their own schools. However, it has been technically possible to find a school that would include an outside student (useful for students who may be traveling, homeschooled, or whose school does not offer the PSAT). Unless a student has already arranged testing, this pathway is unlikely. The coronavirus has made schools loathe to bring in outside students, and test ordering deadlines are rapidly approaching. College Board does not assist students in locating alternate sites, and there is no online resource.

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.

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.

If this weren’t the year of the pandemic, what would we expect?

Over a multi-year period of time, National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs tend to be consistent unless a state has significant changes in testing behavior (for example, Michigan and Illinois got far more competitive when they moved from ACT contracts to SAT contracts). When there is an outlier year such as we’ve seen with the October 2019 PSAT, there is typically a “bounce-back” the following year. If it were not for pandemic-related cancellations, we would expect to see most states have higher cutoffs for the class of 2022 than they saw for the class of 2021. Until we get more clarity from NMSC and start seeing test results, however, we can’t make any useful predictions about 2022 cutoffs.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.


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