Sunday, October 21, 2007

Thoughts On The PSAT

This weekend, my eleventh grade students took the PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Most of them were very nervous. Some realized that this is only the beginning for crucial standardized testing that will determine their futures. PSAT leads to SAT. Then there are the AP tests, the subject SAT tests, and before they take their first college courses, there will be placement tests in English and mathematics. No wonder many of them are depressed and anxious with fatigue.

In the Los Angeles Times dated October 18, 2007. Seema Mehta examined the test and the hysteria. According to her article, “After The First Try, Put Those Pencils Down,” “the SAT is viewed by guidance counselors and college admissions officials as a vital step on students’ paths to college. And for the students who achieve the highest scores, doing well on the PSAT can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships—in this year’s freshman class at USC, 140 students each received nearly $18,000 in annual scholarships from the university based largely on their PSAT scores.”

So the PSAT does not really count towards admissions to college. In fact, admissions officials will not even see the scores. The PSAT is about National Merit Scholarships. For most students, the exam will be a first practice for the SAT. To a few, it may mean some money.

“‘The main importance of the PSAT is really to give students a dry run before they take the SAT,’ said Heather Keddie, director of college counseling at Sage Hill, a private school.” Mehta quotes extensively from Ms. Keddie throughout the article.

The article really addresses a growing phenomenon in education regarding the PSAT: taking the test repeatedly and using test preparation courses and tutors to get ready for it. Evidently, it is now common for students to take the PSAT numerous times. This really is not necessary, as colleges do not see the scores. The SAT is the test students should take multiple times, not the PSAT.

Mehta quotes Keddie again: “Test prep is big business and I think a lot of our students do it. We urge them to take the PSAT and the SAT one time before going into any kind of test prep, and we suggest they do [test prep] in the summer before their senior year so it doesn’t interfere with classes or having an actual life.”

Mehta also seeks out Timothy Brunold, director of admissions to USC for his thoughts on the situation. He makes it clear that there is no point in students making a career out of taking and retaking the exams. He would rather the students engage in “some meaningful activity” instead.

I do hope my students do well on the exam. These days, college is so expensive that even a student with resources feels the pinch. Therefore, if the PSAT leads to financial aid for college, this is even more reason why I hope my students do well.

Realistically, however, this is just one more gear in the mechanization leading to college and a profession. The bottom line is that the test never ends. We must always demonstrate our worthiness to have that job, to get that scholarship, to achieve that degree. Unfortunately, many of these steps in life come with tests.

Although I think my students are placed under too much stress, and that even worse, the wrong things are being stressed, I recognize the necessity of these hurdles in life. I do wish the PSAT and SAT could be abolished for more meaningful ways of assessing college readiness. Written essays demonstrate critical and analytical thinking. A personal interview could reveal a student’s maturity. A resume and letters of recommendation often indicate a student’s past achievement and ability.

In the end, it will all boil down to a test, a performance. No matter how much work I put my students through, no matter how demanding my class might be, I cannot take the test for them, nor can I guarantee success. I can only prepare them for what is to come, and stand behind them, win or lose. In this way, teachers are like parents. It is wrong to try to do the work for them. All we can do is offer our support and hope they do well.

This weekend, my thoughts are with my students. I am also contemplating the long road ahead of us. Right now it seems that road never ends.


  1. Hello. I enjoyed your post. College entrance exams do raise a lot of anxiety in parents and students. Needlessly, I think.

    You might be interested in a recent post of mine at It talks about the positive side effects of all the state-level standardized tests, and how they prepare kids for the "real thing" later in high school.

    Thanks so much for the conversation.

  2. Hi Mr. Martin! The PSAT wasn't too bad. The comprehension and writing/sentence structure skill parts were simple. The vocabulary was tough, but I know I could've prepared more for that. The math was pretty easy and basic because formulas were given. I think everyone did an alright job on the test, but the vocabulary words stumped all of us.

  3. If this appears twice, I'm sorry - the first comment lost the internet while posting.

    The absolute best SAT prep book on the market is Up Your Score. It is funny, cheap ($10.95), and thin (comparatively). If you teach 10th, 11th, or 12th and have not seen this book, get it! It is well worth it. My high school students actually read it on their own.

    -Lord Alford
    Grendel's Bag


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