(Update: New Information on score availability)

The College Board has just released PSAT scores — months after the tests were actually taken in high schools. About one-quarter of the students who took the test have accessed their scores online, though some have experienced trouble getting them, and many counselors who were supposed to get them have also had trouble doing so. Problems with score delivery has also plagued the SAT this past fall, frustrating students and counselors.

(The PSAT/NMSQT, for those who might not know, is the Preliminary SAT/ taken by a few million sophomores and juniors every year as a warm-up for the SAT, which used to be the most popular college admissions exam but is now No. 2 behind the ACT. PSAT results are used to qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship program.)

Sandra Riley, vice president for communications at the College Board, said a new online scoring system created to accommodate scoring reports for the newly designed SAT, which is launching this coming spring, is to blame. She said that initial testing did not reveal “large-scale issues” but a series of “small issues” that are being fixed as they present themselves.

According to Stacy Caldwell, the College Board vice president for the SAT and PSAT/NMSQT,  more than 4 million students took the PSAT in October and about 1.2 million visits to the site have been made, with more than 1 million scores accessed. Problems have developed for some students who do not know how to sign in properly to get their scores, she said. And counselors have been frustrated by complicated instructions for accessing their own accounts.

Counselors had expressed concerns about the late scores on the discussion board of the National Association for College Admissions Counselors, including Jane S. Mathias, director of guidance at Nardin Academy in Buffalo, N.Y., and former president of the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling. She recently wrote (and gave me permission to publish):

“I do not often post here, but I am hoping that my voice might lead others to contact the College Board and let them hear more than our up until now polite responses to the inquiries we have been making all fall.
“I sent an email to the College Board last night after reading the email we received concerning the latest delay. It probably went into a giant folder of will-not-reply email, but I am wondering how many high school counselors are as angry as I am about the failure of the electronic reporting system, which continues still, and the latest delay in scores (PSAT’s were “promised” for December at two different workshops I attended). Don’t forget that the paper score reports that show us the students’ strengths and areas that need improvement won’t come until the end of January. Other combined letters of the alphabet look better and better every day as an alternative, but neither test is the right one for every student.
“Is this affecting my ability to counsel the Class of 2017 – a vehement and very frustrated yes!”

Yvonne J. Dvorak, registrar and assistant director of college counseling at West Nottingham Academy in Colora, Md., responded to Mathias with this (and gave me permission to publish):

“I could not agree more! In addition, it is frustrating our juniors who wanted to use their PSAT results for a more focused SAT prep over our winter break. The students lose out.”

In any case, the PSAT scores are now out — at least for students — and things have changed. Here’s an explanation of what is new and different. Ned Johnson, president and self-described tutor geek at Prep Matters, a test prep company with offices in Bethesda, Md., McLean, Va., and Washington, said:

“Chances are you have read plenty and heard too much about the Redesigned SAT launching in March of 2016. If that’s the case, let’s switch gears — to the PSAT! The College Board just made scores from the October 2015 PSAT available online.

“ ‘Wait. What took so long?!?’ Well, with the big changes to the PSAT and SAT, College Board delayed the release of scores to have plenty of time to get the scores right.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. The scale has changed

Perfect on a section is no longer 800. It’s 760. College Board has instituted a tiered system, with top scores of 800 for the SAT, 760 for PSAT 11 and PSAT 10, and 720 PSAT 8/9. (Guess they like their 40s.) For the PSAT, scores for math and evidence-based reading and writing (EBRW) range from 160-760. Combined scores on PSAT 10/11 are 320-1520.

So, is a current 640 like an old 680? Everything is 40 points lower?

Not exactly. The short answer is that it’s complicated. Scores are based on percentiles, not total correct answers. Here’s the College Board link to understand your scores. If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s the link of how this year’s PSAT scores relate to the scores of tests of past years.

*Note that the charts are preliminary.*

College Board statisticians will continue to work with the numbers through May, when the scores for both the March and May SATs will be released (so be patient, March SAT test-takers). These are big changes to the SAT, and College Board will be analyzing numbers from the PSAT, March SAT and May SAT, using the larger data set to, well, set the data.

2. The formula for the National Merit Selection Index has changed

Well, maybe regressed. College Board has returned to a formula that’s a blast from the past (hint: your parents may remember this). The Selection Index (score for National Merit) will equal the math score + 2 EBRW. Yep, double the reading! So, readers rejoice!

For example:

Student A: ERW 600, M 700. Selection Index 190: 2×60 + 70
Student B: ERW 650, M 700. Selection Index 200: 2×65 + 70
Student C: ERW 750, M 650. Selection Index 215: 2×75 + 65

Because the PSAT scale has changed, so too will National Merit cutoff scores.

I just received a panicked email from a parent that her daughter’s PSAT scores weren’t high enough for National Merit, since her index score didn’t hit last year’s cutoff score.  Well, that was then. This is now.  Since the highest possible index score is no longer 240 but 228, expect cutoff scores to be lower.  Breathe.  And, stay tuned.  The National Merit Program notifies students in late September, so holding one’s breath until then is not advised!

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.

3. So, what does this mean for you?

First, the percentiles don’t mean what they have in past years. That’s okay though; the importance of the PSAT has always been more than the actual score.

Remember that the principal value of the PSAT is feedback. In a few weeks, counselors will have the actual test booklets. Take a look at them. See what you got right, got wrong or didn’t have time to do. Take a practice (I know, groan) SAT and an ACT. If the PSAT percentiles are in fact “enhanced,” they may not be perfect predictors of SAT success, so take a practice SAT. College Board and Khan Academy provide free ones. Then see whether you do better on an SAT or ACT and which you like better (or, perhaps, dislike less). Ideally, you could take just one test, making at least one testing agency bummed out!

Yes, College Board is in the business of selling SATs and ACT in the business of selling ACTs, and you may hate to fill their coffers. But, as most universities require standardized tests for admissions, your focus is just in doing well and then getting back to normal life. Or, if these tests simply aren’t your thing or you simply refuse to partake, mosey over to FairTest to check out hundreds of score-optional colleges and universities.