University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

PSAT day! Are your students benefiting?

In The View from the OEP on October 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm
Throughout Arkansas today, many high school students are spending a few hours taking the PSAT.  Here at OEP, we are big on everyone understanding the purpose behind assessments, who is going to make what decisions based on the results, and how students can benefit from the assessment, so we wanted to review what the PSAT is, how it is being used in Arkansas, how it benefits (or doesn’t) Arkansas students, and what OEP recommends moving forward.

What is the PSAT?

The PSAT is an assessment developed for high school students that measures skills in Reading, Writing, Language, and Math.  The paper/pencil test takes about 3 hours to complete.

How the PSAT is being used in Arkansas:

Arkansas school districts are not required to administer the PSAT, but if a district agrees to administer the test to all 10th graders, they can do so at no cost to students or to the district. The PSAT typically costs $16 per student, but the Arkansas State Board of Education approved covering the costs using at-risk funding as allowed by Act 989.
Districts do not have to offer the test to any student. Districts that want to test only select students on the PSAT can do so, but the district/student must cover the associated cost.
All 11th grade test fees are always the responsibility of the school district/student.

Some states (Deleware, Colorado, and Michigan) are requiring students to take the PSAT, and are planning on using the results in their state accountability system.

The PSAT is not required for Arkansas students, the results are not used in any aspect of the accountability system.  The PSAT administration does not replace the required 10th grade ACT Aspire administration in the spring, which is used as a measure in school accountability.

How the PSAT benefits Arkansas students:

Students can benefit from taking the PSAT in 10th grade in several ways.  The test serves as a practice for the voluntary 11th grade PSAT, which score qualifies you for National Merit Scholarship consideration. In addition, the PSAT is good practice for the SAT, a college entrance exam similar to the ACT, and required by some out-of-state colleges.
Participating in the 10th grade PSAT provides students and their schools with the opportunity to find out if students have the potential to be successful in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  This can help identify students who may have been ‘flying under the radar’ for academic success in AP- and can serve as a particularly helpful tool for encouraging AP participation and enrollment of underrepresented academically prepared students. Schools and students receive AP Potential information in January, allowing time for students to discuss academic plans with counselors , teacher, and parents before selecting classes for their junior year.

A final bonus of PSAT participation in 10th grade is the opportunity to participate in Student Search Service, which connects students with information about educational and financial aid opportunities from nearly 1,700 colleges, universities, scholarship programs, and educational organizations.

When taken in 11th grade, the PSAT automatically enters students for consideration in the National Merit Scholarship competition.  From an initial pool of over 1.6 million students, this well-known program annually identifies 7,500 Merit Scholars to receive college scholarships.

What type of 10th graders are benefiting?

According to information provided by ADE, eighty-one (81) school districts elected to provide their 10th grade students the opportunity to complete the PSAT for free in 10th grade. This is less than one-third of the 262 school districts in Arkansas.

Although less than a third of Arkansas’ school districts are participating, nearly half of 10th graders in the state attend a participating district.  More than 17,000 10th grade students are getting access to a free PSAT, representing over $270,000 in test fees that are being covered by the state.

We were wondering about the characteristics of districts who chose to offer the PSAT to all 10th graders.  Overall, the districts seem representative of state demographics.  As a group the PSAT participating districts serve students whole are slightly more likely to be a minority than the state (47% of participating district students are minority compared to 36% of the state as a whole).   Participating districts also serve students who are about as likely to be participating in FRL as the state (60% of participating district students are FRL compared to 63% of the state as a whole).

Although the PSAT-participating districts look similar to the state as a whole, the program is not reaching some students.  Regional differences are presented below.



District participation in the 10th grade free PSAT program is highest in the Southeast Arkansas, where over 50% of districts are participating, compared to the lowest participation of 21% in the Northeast region. In terms of overall 10th grade enrollment participation, Northwest Arkansas is providing free access to the PSAT to over 60% of 10th graders, but only 1 in 5 10th graders in the Northeast region are getting the opportunity.

When examined by student demographics, we find stark differences in access by region.   Over 70% of African-American students will take the test for free in the Northwest and Central regions, but only 1 in 5 African American students in the Northeast region are getting the opportunity.  Over 80% of Hispanic students in Northwest Arkansas will take the test for free, as will over half of the Hispanic students in Central and Southeast. Less than 15% of Hispanic students in Northeast and Southwest Arkansas will get the opportunity.

What does OEP recommend?

Here at OEP, we like how the state is willing to support all 10th graders taking the PSAT for free, but wonder about how meaningful an opportunity it is for students.

It is certainly a meaningful opportunity for students who are going to re-take the PSAT in 11th grade and may be one of the 3% of students who get selected to participate in the National Merit Scholarship competition. It seems prudent to note that although finalists are eligible for scholarships from colleges or corporations, only 2,500 students nationally win scholarships from National Merit, and these are a one-time payment of $2,500.

So, for most Arkansas students, the benefit will come if districts actively USE THE DATA to identify students for possible enrollment in AP.  Enrollment in AP is particularly helpful if students are on the college-bound track, and if instruction in the course is high-quality. Due to the ACT Aspire testing, which is required in the spring of 3rd through 10th grades, teachers and counselors should ALREADY have good data about students and their academic performance.  ACT Aspire for 9th and 10 graders gives students a predicted ACT score, which is likely a much more relevant indicator of success for Arkansas students than if they are ready to take an AP class.

We think the state should continue to promote the free 10th grade PSAT opportunity to districts, particularly those in the Northeast and Southwest regions, where African-American and Hispanic students are unlikely to get access to the test and subsequent information.  We also recommend that the state examine how many students are being identified for AP potential who are not already enrolled in AP courses.  Perhaps the schools are doing a good job of placing students in appropriate courses!

Most importantly, we need to be sure we are using our resources effectively to provide the best quality college and career counseling to all Arkansas students.

We would love to hear your thoughts…


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