Teachers, students argue “merit” of PSAT


Photo Courtesy of Peyton Chapman

13 of Lincoln’s 14 National Merit Semi-Finalists pose for a photo (not pictured: Andrew Liu).

The PSAT is often described as a test with no repercussions.

“I didn’t even bring a calculator,” said Nazlee Shahidzadeh, a junior who took the test last year.

Hundreds of Lincoln sophomores and juniors take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, more commonly known as the PSAT/NMSQT,  every year to get a sense of testing environments and to gauge their possible scores for the SAT. Many are unaware of its other possible ramifications: while the test can be an important tool for students to get scholarship money, some allege it feeds stereotypes of Asians as the “model minority.”

Most students take the PSAT during their sophomore year (known as PSAT 10) and junior year (known as PSAT/NMSQT) proctored by their school. The difference between the sophomore and junior year test is that only the exam taken junior year qualifies for the National Merit Scholarship Award, however the format of the exam is the same for both PSATs.

This year, Lincoln had 14 seniors qualify for semi-finalists: Ashok Kaushik, Katie Kim, Sameer Suri, Daniel Lewinsohn, Danny Luo, Justin Ching, Randy Zhang, Roman Smith, Yilan Liu, Sophia Zhang, Raja Moreno, Sydney Dunn, Jared Chen, and Andrew Liu.

Of these 14 semi-finalists, 12 of the students identify as Asian Americans.

Nationally, Asian American students tend to score higher on standardized tests than other racial/ethnic groups according to College Board and other education experts. College Board statistics found that when compared to other racial groups–  American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and White– Asian American students in 2017 scored higher than all other groups in mean scores.

Scott Jaschik, an editor of Inside Higher Education, wrote in an article published on the organization’s web site that cites statistics from College Board. They noted that since 2006, using the 1600 score scale, Asian American students were the only group to improve their score by 54 points by 2015, while all other racial groups’ scores decreased between six to 28 points.

Lincoln students and national experts on Asian American studies have different ideas as to why Asians fare better on this standardized test.

Professors Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, experts in social sciences and Asian American studies at University of California Irvine and Los Angeles, respectively, argue in their book “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” that these national statistics can be reflective of societal structures that shape Asian American students. Lee and Zhou note in their findings that Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the “model minority” because of their high household incomes and their significant presence in elite universities.

Students Danny Luo, Sophia Zhang and Katie Kim, who identify as Asian Americans, have their own experiences and opinions on stereotypes about Asian American students. In addition, each reports preparing for various standardized tests in their own way.

Zhang and Kim studied for the SAT, though not for the PSAT.

“My story is pretty similar everyone else’s, I studied a lot for the SAT, not the PSAT, because I wanted to do well for college admissions… I didn’t really prep at all for the PSAT,” said Zhang.

“I don’t consider myself a good test taker, I think my PSAT score was actually lucky for me, but I did well on my SAT because I spent hours and hours on studying because I knew if I did it without studying I would not get the score I wanted. I think a lot of it has to do with the time you spend outside preparing for it,” said Kim.

Luo reported not studying for either test at all. Zhang, Luo and Kim don’t feel the stereotypes and cultural norms explored in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” are true for them.

“Based on my experiences as a Chinese American coming from Chinese immigrant parents, there’s a culture of respecting education, respecting where education can take you and respecting the hard work your parents have put in, that encourages me to really value my education and to value the hard work my father put into for me to get into college to pursue a good education in the United States,” says Zhang. “I feel I have the responsibility sometimes, and the pressure to do well, because I know how much my life can change from a good education,” Zhang says.

“For me personally I haven’t really felt that academic pressure from upbringing, culture or my family, and I’m really grateful that my parents don’t follow the stereotype that plagues Asian Americans, especially children born to immigrants. There is that culture of placing extreme importance on education, and that will lead to prioritizing test prep and taking hard classes and getting good grades, in the same way, other stuff is prioritized for other people,” says Luo.

Roman Smith doesn’t identify as an Asian student; he identifies as white.

“I feel a little bit of pressure from my parents,” says Smith, “because they expect me to do well in general, they don’t set grade point averages or grades they expect me to receive, and they just expect me to do my best… and that’s the expectation I put on myself.”

Smith reported taking one practice test the night before the PSAT and using Khan Academy’s online tutoring services. In addition, he said he “gave it his all” the day of the PSAT.

Lee and Zhou also suggest that counselors and teachers, especially in public schools, ‘presume’ that Asian Americans students have a higher level of discipline and studious manners which causes the faculty/staff to steer them towards the more academically challenging programs, produce more help and push the students to higher levels of achievement than other racial groups.

“These institutional advantages, in turn, lead to better academic performance and outcomes among Asian American students, says” Lee.

Implicit bias is everywhere…” says Blair Hennessy, a social studies teacher, “It would be naive to think that administrators and teachers are not subconsciously pushing Asian students into higher tracks.”

“Work has been done, but far more work needs to happen to address our biases and reflect upon their impact on our young people in this building,” Hennessey adds.

However, the Lincoln semi-finalists’ experiences contradict Lee and Zhou’s argument that school teachers and counselors push Asian American students to take harder classes.

Luo noted that counselors wouldn’t let him take IB classes as a freshman. It was after talking to a junior that Luo realized he could take IB classes and would have to “convince” his counselor to let him do so.

While their personal experiences don’t resonate with the “model minority” stereotypes described in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox”, students noted that socioeconomics could contribute to the score disparity among racial groups.

Although these students scored high enough to reach semi-finalist status, several expressed the belief that one test can’t define them as students.

“Standardized test scores are not good indicators of a person’s ability, because some people definitely naturally have a better recognition of how to take advantage of rules of a test and how tests have their own direction that can make it ten times easier than other people,” says Luo. He adds, “Don’t place so much importance on standardized tests, because one number at the end of the day does not define what you’ve done as a person or what you’re capable of doing… it’s really not that big of a deal.”