Evaluating the New PSAT: Reading and Writing

The College Board has released a new practice PSAT, which gives us a lot of info on the new SAT. This essay focuses on the reading and writing sections.

As I predicted in my essay on the SAT’s competitive advantage, the College Board has released a test that has much in common with the ACT. I did not predict that the homage would go so far as test plagiarism.

This is a pretty technical piece, but not in the psychometric sense. I’m writing this as a long-time coach of the SAT and, more importantly, the ACT, trying to convey the changes as I see them from that viewpoint.

For comparison, I used these two sample ACT, this practice SAT (old version), and this old PSAT.

Reading

The old SAT had a reading word count of about 2800 words, broken up into eight passages. Four passages were very short, just 100 words each. The longest was 800 words. The PSAT reading count was around 2000 words in six passages. This word count is reading passages only; the SAT has 19 sentence completions to the PSAT’s 13.

So SAT testers had 70 minutes to complete 19 sentence completions and 47 questions over eight passages of 2800 words total. PSAT testers had 50 minutes to complete 13 sentence and 27 questions over six passages of 2000 words total.

The ACT has always had 4 passages averaging 750 words, giving the tester 35 minutes to complete 40 questions (ten for each passage). No sentence completions.

Comparisons are difficult, but if you figure about 45 seconds per sentence completion, you can deduct that from the total time and come up with two rough metrics comparing reading passages only: minutes per question and words per question (on average, how many words is the tester reading to answer the questions).

Metric

Old SAT

Old PSAT

ACT

New PSAT
Word Count

2800

2000

3000

3200
Passage Count

8

6

4

5
Passage Length

100-850

100-850

750

500-800
MPQ

1.18

1.49

1.14

1.27
WPQ

59.57

74.07

75

69.21

I’ve read a lot of assertions that the new SAT reading text is more complex, but my brief Lexile analysis on random passages in the same category (humanities, science) showed the same range of difficulty and sentence lengths for old SAT, current ACT, and old and new PSAT. Someone with more time and tools than I have should do an indepth analysis.

Question types are much the same as the old format: inference, function, vocabulary in context, main idea. The new PSAT requires the occasional figure analysis, which the College Board will undoubtedly flaunt as unprecedented. However, the College Board doesn’t have an entire Science section, which is where the ACT assesses a reader’s ability to evaluate data and text.

Sentence completions are gone, completely. In passage length and overall reading demands, the new PSAT is remarkably similar in structure and word length to the ACT. This suggests that the SAT is going to be even longer? I don’t see how, given the time constraints.

tl;dr: The new PSAT reading section looks very similar to the current ACT reading test in structure and reading demands. The paired passage and the questions types are the only holdover from the old SAT/PSAT structure. The only new feature is actually a cobbled up homage to the ACT science test in the form of occasional table or graph analysis.

Writing

I am so flummoxed by the overt plagiarism in this section that I seriously wonder if the test I have isn’t a fake, designed to flush out leaks within the College Board. This can’t be serious.

The old PSAT/SAT format consisted of three question types: Sentence Improvements, Identifying Sentence Error, and Paragraph Improvements. The first two question types presented a single sentence. In the first case, the student would identify a correct (or improved) version or say that the given version was best (option A). In the ISEs, the student had to read the sentence cold with no alternatives and indicate which if any underlined word or phrase was erroneous (much, much more difficult, option E was no change). In Paragraph Improvements, the reader had to answer grammar or rhetoric questions about a given passage. All questions had five options.

The ACT English section is five passages running down the left hand side of the page, with underlined words or phrases. As the tester goes along, he or she stops at each underlined section and looks to the right for a question. Some questions are simple grammar checks. Others ask about logic or writing choices—is the right transition used, is the passage redundant, what would provide the most relevant detail. Each passage has 15 questions, for a total of 75 questions in 45 minutes (9 minutes per passage, or 36 seconds per question). The tester has four choices and the “No Change” option is always A.

The new PSAT/SAT Writing/Language section is four passages running down the left hand side of the page, with underlined words or phrases. As the tester goes along, he or she stops at each underlined section and looks to the right for a question. Some questions are simple grammar checks. Others ask about logic or writing choices—is the right transition used, is the passage redundant, what would provide the most relevant detail. Each passage has 11 questions, for a total of 44 questions in 35 minutes (about 8.75 minutes per passage or 47 seconds a question). The tester has four choices and the “No Change” option is always A.

Oh, did I forget? Sometimes the tester has to analyze a graph.

The College Board appears to have simply stolen not only the structure, but various common question types that the ACT has used for years—as long as I’ve been coaching the test, which is coming on for twelve years this May.

I’ll give some samples, but this isn’t a random thing. The entire look and feel of the ACT English test has been copied wholesale—I’ll add “in my opinion” but don’t know how anyone could see this differently.

Writing Objective:

Style and Logic:

Grammar/Punctuation:

tl;dr: The College Board ripped off the ACT English test. I don’t really understand copyright law, much less plagiarism. But if the American College Test company is not considering legal action, I’d love to know why.

The PSAT reading and writing sections don’t ramp up dramatically in difficulty. Timing, yes. But the vocabulary load appears to be similar.

The College Board and the poorly informed reporters will make much of the data analysis questions, but I hope to see any such claims addressed in the context of the ACT’s considerably more challenging data analysis section. The ACT should change the name; the “Science” section only uses science contexts to test data analysis. All the College Board has done is add a few questions and figures. Weak tea compared to the ACT.

As I predicted, The College Board has definitely chosen to make the test more difficult for gaming. I’ve been slowly untangling the process by which someone who can barely speak English is able to get a high SAT verbal and writing score, and what little I know suggests that all the current methods will have to be tossed. Moving to longer passages with less time will reward strong readers, not people who are deciphering every word and comparing it to a memory bank. And the sentence completions, which I quite liked, were likely being gamed by non-English speakers.

In writing, leaving the plagiarism issue aside for more knowledgeable folk, the move to passage-based writing tests will reward English speakers with lower ability levels and should hurt anyone with no English skills trying to game the test. That can only be a good thing.

Of course, that brings up my larger business question that I addressed in the competitive advantage piece: given that Asians show a strong preference for the SAT over the ACT, why would Coleman decide to kill the golden goose? But I’ll put big picture considerations aside for now.

Here’s my evaluation of the math section.

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15 responses to “Evaluating the New PSAT: Reading and Writing

  • Mark Roulo

    “I’ve read a lot of assertions that the new SAT reading text is more complex, but my brief Lexile analysis on random passages in the same category (humanities, science) showed the same range of difficulty and sentence lengths for old SAT, current ACT, and old and new PSAT. Someone with more time and tools than I have should do an indepth analysis.”

    I have the tool. And I’ll have the tome if I don’t need to hand enter the passages.

  • anonymousskimmer

    Somewhat off-topic, but do you know if the ACT, like the SAT, has gotten easier over the years, or if more high-level students are now taking it (or fewer low-level students), or if test prep has improved scores?

    Because there was a time when my first-take 31 composite was a 99%-ile, but now a 32 composite is a 98%-ile. and a 34 Science Reasoning is the bare-minimum 99%-ile on that subtest when it used to be a 32.

    Regardless of personal self-esteem I’d like to think that kids are getting smarter or are being taught better, but this seems unlikely.

  • Lagertha

    My youngest son just scored in the 99.9 percentile on the PSAT (which is free, btw) and every elite university in the country is sending him e-mails and letters….very bizarre. He is just a sophomore, but I do know he is very bright.

    Coleman’s decision to change the SAT was mostly attributed (my opinion) to the fact that the US kids, overwhelmingly, last 2 years have preferred the ACT. The ACT does not subtract from score if answers are wrong, and, it is not so full of “trick” questions. It is less stressful. After all the AP bs and sports, and extra curricular activities, who needs more stress? (on a tangent: did you check-out the article in NYT about Palo Alto teens killing themselves over HS & college app stress?

    As far as why Coleman would put the kibosh on receiving revenue from foreign students who prefer the SAT ( many who game the test) is due to pressure from the elite universities which are practicing a sort of “socialism.” They are trying to accept as many URM’s and First Gens, and, these students, also do better on the ACT. ACT has always been the test for the midwest, southern and western universities. The SAT has always been the test of choice for the northeast kids and prep schools, but now those kids, too, are overwhelmingly ONLY taking the ACT. With less stress, why would you not? But, I agree, how in the world can SAT be a mirror image of ACT?

  • Mark Roulo

    2011 PSAT practice test, p21 problem 25 cannot be solved … because they haven’t told us enough about the triangle. Right?

  • Evaluating the New PSAT: Math | educationrealist

    […] after the high drama of writing, the math section is pretty tame. Except the whole oh, my god, are they serious? part. Caveat: […]

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