Your 2016 PSAT Score - Everything You Need to Know (including the stuff the College Board doesn’t want you to hear about)

This article concisely explains how to interpret a redesigned 2016 PSAT score report.  It also touches on the College Board’s questionable practice of basing students’ percentile rankings on a “nationally representative sample percentile” that includes students who didn’t actually take the redesigned PSAT exam.

If you have not accessed your PSAT score report online (or are unable to do so), click here for a sample redesigned PSAT score report


1. The new PSAT has 2 sections instead of 3

The former version of the PSAT consisted of three sections: Critical Reading, Writing, and Math.  The redesigned PSAT consists of two sections: Reading/Writing and Math. It has combined the Reading and Writing sections into one single section. 

2. The highest possible score on the redesigned PSAT is 1520

The highest possible score on each section is 760.  By adding the two sections together, the highest possible total score is 1520. 

Please note that the redesigned SAT exam will still be scored on the familiar scale of 200-800 per section, with a highest possible total score of 1600. 

The idea behind the new scoring system is that a student’s score on the redesigned PSAT is indicative of what the student will likely score on the redesigned SAT.  However, since the PSAT does not contain the most difficult questions that are found on the SAT, they have capped PSAT scores at 1520. 

3. The National Merit Selection Index has changed

The selection index on the former version of the exam was simply your total score.  That is no longer the case.  The selection index on the redesigned PSAT is generated by multiplying your Reading and Writing score by 2, adding in your math score, and then dropping the zero at the end. If that strikes you as needlessly complicated, you are not alone. 

Let’s review an example:

“Johnny Tester” posts the following scores:

Reading and Writing: 690; Math: 680; Total: 1370

Step 1) Multiple the Reading and Writing score by 2 (690 x 2 = 1380.)

Step 2) Add the math score (1380 + 680 = 2060)

Step 3) Drop the zero on the end, for a selection index of 206.

4. The cutoff scores for National Merit Scholarships will be different in 2016

A good rule of thumb for determining National Merit Scholarship eligibility is that roughly the top 1% of PSAT scores in each state are chosen to become national merit scholarship semi-finalists.  Due to the new scoring scale of the redesigned PSAT, the cutoff scores for each state will be significantly different than in years past.

For example, in years past the cutoff for National Merit Scholarship eligibility in California has typically hovered in the range of 222-223.  With the new scoring scale, we estimate that the 2016 National Merit Scholarship eligibility cutoff in California will fall near 220-221.  We will know for certain when the College Board releases the new cutoff scores in September 2016.

5. The PSAT has added numerous sub-scores and college-readiness indicators

There is little reason to be concerned with the new sub-scores or college-readiness indicators.  The College Board will require several cycles (years) of PSAT testing and academic performance data to be able to make claims of “college readiness” with any degree of accuracy. 

6. The formula for computing percentile rankings has changed

Traditionally, percentile rankings have allowed students to compare their scores to the national pool of students in the same grade level who took the PSAT.  As the College Board describes:

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.

However, this year the College Board changed the manner in which they generate percentile rankings.  The percentiles most prominently displayed on the PSAT score reports are now “derived via a research study sample of U.S. students in the student’s grade (10th or 11th), weighted to represent all U.S. students in that grade, regardless of whether they typically take the PSAT/NMSQT.”

In other words, the pool of students was expanded to include the theoretical scores of students who did not actually take the PSAT and who are unlikely to be college-bound. 

Many are concerned about this new method of computing percentiles.  Their concerns are based on the following facts, which may or may not be coincidental:

1)     Including theoretical scores of students who did not actually take the PSAT causes the majority of high scoring students’ percentiles to rise.

2)     The main method students and counselors use to choose between the SAT and ACT is percentile comparison. 

3)     This new method of generating PSAT percentiles may lead some students to conclude that they are better suited to the new SAT than the ACT. However, since the ACT does not include theoretical students in its computation of percentiles, this may not actually be the case. 

Our conclusions: 

1)     Families should interpret their recent PSAT percentile rankings with caution. 

2)     Class of 2017 students: when choosing between the ACT and SAT, if in doubt, go with the ACT. There are simply fewer ambiguities to worry about. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the challenge of March SAT scores not being released for over two months.