12/11/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

pSAT Results Don't Matter for Elite Private High School Students

This post was co-authored by Director of Standardized Test Preparation Michael Bergen.

The quickly-shifting landscape of standardized college entrance exams has made the pSAT a confusing relic for New York City independent school juniors to handle. Every October, the pSAT (Preparatory Scholastic Aptitude Test) is administered to independent high school juniors who, in many cases, prepare for the test, diverting time and attention from other important activities. But recently, independent school families have begun to question the usefulness of this annual ritual within the larger context of the college application process.

One of their questions relates to the growing prominence of the ACT, which has only recently become popular across the Northeast although it has been the exam of choice in other parts of the country for more than fifty years. While hard data on its market share among New York City's elite secondary schools does not exist, the ACT eclipsed the SAT in popularity on a national scale for the first time in 2012 and appears to be taken in New York City as frequently as the SAT. As a result, the pSAT does not function as a shortened version of the exam many students will take a few months down the line and therefore is not a useful preparatory or diagnostic exercise.

Even for juniors who eventually take the SAT, the pSAT does not serve its intended purpose. When the SAT was changed in 2005 to include a writing section, the pSAT was not fully revised to reflect the change. For one thing, there is no essay section on the pSAT, a subsection that comprises a substantial piece of a student's writing score on the actual SAT. Surely the College Board, the company that devises and scores the test, is aware that the discrepancy is not ideal, but the nonprofit was likely forced to compromise on the pSAT because scoring the essay requires the considerable time and expense of human graders. There is also the issue of the pSAT's length: 130 minutes divided into one section of multiple-choice writing, two sections of critical reading and two sections of math; compared to the SAT's 225 minutes divided into one section of essay writing, two sections of multiple choice writing, three sections of critical reading, and three sections of math, the pSAT is a much less taxing exercise from start to finish. A major challenge itself in SAT preparation is building students' endurance for this upcoming overwhelming mental marathon. So, from a logistical standpoint, while the pSAT may make sense for the College Board with regard to scoring (it's mechanical and less cost intensive) and for the schools administering the test (it's less time intensive), it is by no means preparation for the rigor of taking the actual SAT.

College application conversations between school advisors and the applicant's family have shifted from the efficacy of test prep to whether students are better suited for the SAT or the ACT, how long they should prep, and the most advantageous test date for a first sitting. The answer to the last question is up for debate; some elite schools recommend January of the junior year while others feel holding off until March or even May is more prudent. For most students, a December pSAT score report is a metric that comes too late in the game to be useful in a preparation process likely to include months of flash cards, practice tests and preparatory classes or tutoring (or in some cases, all of the above).

Another strike against the October pSAT is the dissemination of the results, which are sent first to schools who log and review the scores before delivering them to students. Parents are concerned that college counselors use the results to pigeonhole students before they've even had their first college meeting, determining much of that student's admissions trajectory based off an isolated (and dubiously representative) score. Although this practice is generally unlikely, the perception makes taking the test unappealing.

Lastly, the pSAT's status as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program has diminished significance in the elite private school world. The funds offered to winners are a fraction of private college tuition. Moreover, the highly selective institutions to which NYC private schoolers apply receive so many applications with some form of recognition from the program that being a semi-finalist, finalist, or even a winner is relatively insignificant.

So, many of New York City's most prestigious independent schools now offer both the pSAT and PLAN (the ACT's version of the pSAT) in the spring of sophomore year, scoring both in-house. The sophomore year test is more useful as a diagnostic tool and while the official junior-fall pSAT feels like it has far-reaching implications, the results should not be worried about.