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Communicating with Students About the PSAT/NMSQT

As high school teachers and administrators, you understand the importance of the PSAT/NMSQT. As standardized test experts, we also get it.

Students, however, have widely varying information and opinions about the PSAT/NMSQT, and it usually falls to educators to help get them on the same page. With the big test on the horizon, here are several questions you may get from students and how to answer them.

What’s the difference between the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT?
NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and this version of the PSAT is given to juniors during the fall semester. Taking the PSAT/NMSQT your junior year might make you eligible for National Merit distinctions or scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship Program honors the students with the top 50,000 PSAT scores across the United States, but it’s not required for admission to college.

The PSAT 10 is administered to sophomores in spring semester. The only difference between the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT is that students who take the PSAT 10 will not be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program (you must be a junior to qualify).

What’s a good score?
It depends on what you mean by “good.” The PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520, with a range of 160-760 for both Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW). For reference, the SAT is scored between 400 and 1600, with a range of 200-800 for both Math and EBRW. The range for PSAT scores is slightly lower to account for the fact that it’s a somewhat easier test than the SAT.

The score you receive on the PSAT indicates the score you would get if you took the SAT instead on that same day. For example, a 500 in Math on the PSAT is a 500 in Math on the SAT. College Board’s College Readiness Benchmark is a 1010 Composite (480 EBRW and 530 Math). Benchmarks look at a range of courses across a range of institutions and determine when a typical student will get a C in those courses.

In 2017, the national average PSAT score was a 1015. Based on the benchmark and average, a score of 1020 or above would be considered above average or “good”. But considering the PSAT is primarily practice, any score is a good score, as it allows you to understand what you need to improve for the SAT.

When should I start practicing?
Another “depends.” If you’re within three months of the exam, go ahead and practice. It’s always a good idea to do a trial run before you sit for the one that counts… even if the one that counts is a trial run itself! However, if you’re over three months away, you’re better off preparing by working hard in your classes. You should pick up a lot of the skills you’ll need to be successful there.

Don’t be discouraged with your scores, even if they’re below average. Many students haven’t yet learned a lot of the math that shows up on the PSAT. At the same time, don’t be overly confident with a good score. The SAT is longer than the PSAT and increases in rigor. There is also an essay portion of the SAT that is not on the PSAT.

Final Thoughts
For many students, the PSAT/NMSQT is the first exposure they’ll have to standardized testing. They key to preparing them is balance. The exam is not as high-stakes as the SAT or ACT, which will be one of the determining factors of their admission to college. However, its importance shouldn’t be downplayed either, as students will take that a sign that the test doesn’t mean anything and is irrelevant to them.

As with all student communications, being direct and supportive counts for a lot. After all, the PSAT/NMSQT is the beginning of a long journey to college entrance, and we all want them to get off on the right foot.

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