Deciphering Your Teenager’s New PSAT Scores

Your Teen Mag

By Jane Parent
January 19, 2016

If your high school junior took the PSAT in October 2015, he or she has (hopefully) received those scores in the past few weeks. The College Board also made some changes to the test this year. There are an awful lot of numbers on that score report. What do they mean, and how did your student do? Dr. Kat Cohen, chief executive officer and founder of IvyWise, breaks it down for us.

1. The scale has changed. On the old test, a perfect score on a section was 800. Now it is 760. Possible scores for math and evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) range from 160-760. 

2. Scores are now based on percentiles. Instead of a score based on the total number of correct answers, students will see two percentiles.

  • The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile. This shows how a student’s score compares if every single student in their grade in the United States took the test, even those students who do not typically take the test.
  • The User Percentile-Nation. Shows how a student’s score compares to the scores of some U.S. students in a particular grade, a group who typically take the PSAT test.

“This means that the Nationally Representative score appears to be inflated,” Cohen says. “It takes into account students who did not actually take the test, but had they done so, likely would have scored lower. The old PSAT only gave the percentiles of students who actually took the test.”

Why the change? The College Board may be making a strategic decision, according to Cohen. “If students feel better about their scores with this new system, it may sway students into thinking the SAT is the better test for them to take (as opposed to the ACT which is the front-leader in the field at the moment).”

3. The National Merit Selection has changed. The College Board has returned to an old formula to calculate the National Merit Selection which, says Cohen, will benefit students. The Selection Index will be the math score + 2x evidence-based reading and writing. Evidence based reading and writing (EBRW) scores now count for double. 

Note: Only juniors taking the PSAT are eligible for the National Merit program. If your student is a sophomore, consider this year a practice run.

4. Cutoff scores for semifinalist and commended status will also change. Since the highest possible index score is no longer 240 but 228, cutoff scores will also be modified, probably downwards. We’ll know for sure in September, when the National Merit Program notifies students.

5. Use the score to prepare for the SAT (or not). Students should use the PSAT as a way “to assess their strengths and weaknesses,” says Cohen. Review the test booklets to determine what they got right, wrong, and what they didn’t have time to answer.

Cohen recommends that students should “analyze their test scores and sub-scores to give them an idea of what kind of test taker they are and where their strengths lie.” This can be helpful when it comes to preparing for the SAT, which your junior will take later this year.

That said, if your student did score poorly on PSAT, then that may be an indication she’d be better off taking the ACT instead. Still, Cohen suggest students should take the practice SAT/ACT tests to see how they perform on those tests before making a final call.