10 January 2016

Gosh, could the College Board be trying to inflate PSAT scores?

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the College Board might be trying to pull some sort of sleight-of-hand with scores for the new test. 

In this Washington Post article about the (extremely delayed) release of 2015 PSAT scores, Ned Johnson of PrepMatters writes: 

Here’s the most interesting point: College Board seems to be inflating the percentiles. Perhaps not technically changing the percentiles but effectively presenting a rosier picture by an interesting change to score reports. From the College Board website, there is this explanation about percentiles:

A percentile is a number between 0 and 100 that shows how you rank compared to other students. It represents the percentage of students in a particular grade whose scores fall at or below your score. For example, a 10th-grade student whose math percentile is 57 scored higher or equal to 57 percent of 10th-graders.

You’ll see two percentiles:

The Nationally Representative Sample percentile shows how your score compares to the scores of all U.S. students in a particular grade, including those who don’t typically take the test.
The User Percentile — Nation shows how your score compares to the scores of only some U.S. students in a particular grade, a group limited to students who typically take the test.

What does that mean? Nationally Representative Sample percentile is how you would stack up if every student took the test. So, your score is likely to be higher on the scale of Nationally Representative Sample percentile than actual User Percentile.

On the PSAT score reports, College Board uses the (seemingly inflated) Nationally Representative score, which, again, bakes in scores of students who DID NOT ACTUALLY TAKE THE TEST but, had they been included, would have presumably scored lower. The old PSAT gave percentiles of only the students who actually took the test.

For example, I just got a score from a junior; 1250 is reported 94th percentile as Nationally Representative Sample percentile. Using the College Board concordance table, her 1250 would be a selection index of 181 or 182 on last year’s PSAT. In 2014, a selection index of 182 was 89th percentile. In 2013, it was 88th percentile. It sure looks to me that College Board is trying to flatter students. Why might that be? They like them? Worried about their feeling good about the test? Maybe. Might it be a clever statistical sleight of hand to make taking the SAT seem like a better idea than taking the ACT? Nah, that’d be going too far.

I’m assuming that last sentence is intended to be taken ironically. 

One quibble. Later in the article, Johnson also writes that “If the PSAT percentiles are in fact “enhanced,” they may not be perfect predictors of SAT success, so take a practice SAT.” But if PSAT percentiles are “enhanced,” who is to say that SAT percentiles won’t be “enhanced” as well?

Based on the revisions to the AP exams, the College Board’s formula seems to go something like this:

(1) take a well-constructed, reasonably valid test, one for which years of data collection exists, and declare that it is no longer relevant to the needs of 21st century students.

(2) Replace existing test with a more “holistic,” seemingly more rigorous exam, for which the vast majority of students will be inadequately prepared.

(3) Create a curve for the new exam that artificially inflates scores. 

(4) Proclaim students “college ready” when they may be still lacking fundamental skills. 

(5) Find another exam, and repeat the process. 

1 Response

  1. Anonymous

    I’m a junior who took the PSATs, and scores of 1390 to 1520 from classmates of mine were considered to be in the 98th or 99th percentile…an over 100 point difference…

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