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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Mallaley

Is the new Digital PSAT harder than it seems?

Up until now, the SAT, and its junior version the PSAT have been administered as paper and pencil exams. For the SAT that means 100 years of eraser smudges and stray marks being recorded as answers.


This fall saw the launch of the first Digital PSAT, which will soon be followed this spring by the launch of the first Digital SAT. We have been following the production and progress of this test closely and have noted many positives on the College Board’s commitment to creating a useful and fair test. (Learn more by clicking here.) However, now that the first batch of students have taken the Digital PSAT, and our Directors here at Tried & True have begun consulting with students and families on their Digital SAT Score Reports, we have started to notice a pattern: students think the Digital PSAT is easier than it really is.


When consulting with students and families, we typically recommend that students take both a Practice ACT as well as a Practice SAT, so together we can determine which exam will best represent the student to colleges. Having worked with thousands of students over the years, we have found that some students perform better on the SAT, others on the ACT, and still others about the same on both exams. Once we have analyzed their score reports and made a determination, we can advise students as to which test they should focus their energies on.


Since Digital PSAT score reports started coming out just a few weeks ago, our Directors have started meeting with families and comparing these score reports with Practice ACT Score Reports. During our consultations we typically ask students which test they felt they performed best on. In almost all of our consultations, students have said that they felt they performed better on the PSAT and that they would prefer to focus on the SAT rather than the ACT. In a number of these instances students actually performed better on the ACT, earning higher scores. So why is this? Why are students mistakenly believing that their Digital PSAT performance is better than their Practice ACT performance?


The PSAT May “Appear” Easier Than It Really Is.

We suspect two factors make the PSAT seem easier than it really is.


Timing

The Digital PSAT, as well as the SAT itself, is a 2:14 minute test. The ACT is a 2:55 minute test. The PSAT is approximately 25% shorter than the ACT. This is a significant difference.


Students are likely to prefer the shorter timing of the PSAT and SAT. This is likely a strong contributor to the illusion that the PSAT is an easier exam than the ACT.


I myself have taken these exams many times, and I can personally attest that the final hour of the ACT can feel grueling.


Adaptive Testing

The PSAT and SAT take advantage of a testing approach known as section adaptive testing, where students take a first Reading and Writing stage. If they break a certain threshold on the first Reading and Writing stage, they will be given a harder second stage. If they do not break that threshold, their second stage will be easier.


This pattern repeats again in the Math section.


Some of the students we have consulted with have mentioned that they felt the questions were easier on the PSAT. This likely indicates that these students were given the easier second stages. They felt that the questions were easier because the questions were, in fact, easier. However, because they ended up on the easier second stages, they did not have the potential to score as highly as if they had ended up on the harder second stages.


This likely also contributes to the feeling that, at least for some students, the PSAT is an easier exam.



There may be other factors at play. The fact that the PSAT is a computer based test, whereas the ACT is still administered on paper-and-pencil might play into the perceived disparity in difficulty between these exams. It could be that some students, raised on tablets, smartphones, and laptops, are more comfortable in a digital testing environment. If this is the case, it is worthy of note. This may be a legitimate reason for certain students to focus on the Digital PSAT or SAT.



Focus on the test you score best on.


However, a student’s perception as to which exam is easier, should not be the guiding factor on which exam that student chooses to focus on. Students and families should focus on the exam that the student scores best on. This is the exam that will best represent that student in the college admissions process. If the student is performing equally well on both exams, then it might be reasonable to consider which exam the student prefers.


We recommend that all parents have their students take a practice exam of each and then compare the scores to determine which test their student should focus on. If your student needs to take a practice exam or if you would like help in interpreting score reports and determining which exam is your student’s best fit, please reach out to schedule a complimentary consultation with one of our expert Directors.


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