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Kennedy Catholic's Focus on PSAT Prep Pays Off

Each year approximately 3.5 million students take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) at various high schools. Besides being prep for the all important SAT, the test carries a gravitas all its own as the benchmark for the awarding of National Merit Scholarships.

For nearly ten years, Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, NY, has offered a course specifically on the PSAT. There is no question helped increase Kennedy's number of National Merit Semifinalists and Finalists, and allowed students to apply and obtain admission at highly competitive colleges. "The PSAT course is unique in that it's not just a test prep course," said Mrs. Ellen Kelly. She should know: the current chair of Kennedy's math department, she designed the program and also teaches it.

Left to right: National Merit Semi-Finalist Tricia Curtin; PSAT Teacher Mrs. Ellen Kelly. Photo by Jacob Bergmeier.

"Kennedy's PSAT course complements our goal of graduating students that are not only ready to succeed in college but also to perform effectively as adults as they advance in their careers. That means having great verbal, mathematical, and problem solving skills. We don't look at it as 'just teach to the test.'"

The course began at Kennedy Catholic in the fall of 2009. "Initially, the sophomores were in disbelief that they had lost a 'free' or a 'study' and now had an additional class that counted!,” Kelly remembers. “There were some growing pains that year, but over the years, students and parents have grown to appreciate the benefit of test prep during the school day."

In 2017-18 the course was extended to a full year. The SAT had changed in March of 2016: the math portion emphasized geometry less and focused more on algebra and advanced algebra. By the fall of junior year most students have not studied the more advanced algebra that is on the PSAT test. Adding a semester to the course allows Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Furey, another PSAT instructor, to teach advanced algebra topics to sophomores while reinforcing geometry (now only about 10 percent of the math portion). Extending the PSAT course to a year also allows the teachers to devote additional time to the non-math side of things, formerly referred to as "the verbal," but known now as "Evidence-Based Reading and Writing." Kennedy learned quickly that the public and private schools in the 45 districts from which it attracts students don't all teach semicolons, the pluperfect tense, and misplaced modifiers with equivalent zeal.

"Some students are grammar gurus when they arrive, rarely getting a question wrong; others are unfamiliar with standard conventions of writing," Kelly said.

When not splitting hairs over comma splices, the new, improved "verbal" is all about reading analysis, drawing conclusions and parsing through the text-based evidence to support those conclusions. "We need our students to get off of Instagram or Snapchat and instead to read literature, well-written articles from the social sciences or science, and historical documents, a variety of texts can appear on a PSAT or SAT."

This chart shows Kennedy's position with other local schools as relates to both the final score averages on the 2017 SAT and the percentage of the student body who actually sit for the exam.


Another reason Kelly credits for Kennedy students doing so well on those tests is the school's strict adherence to the Common Core curriculum which is the basis for much of the content on the PSAT and SAT. “As long as you have a school that is truly teaching the Common Core Standards -- which we really follow -- then the students, provided they are doing their work, are going to do well on college admissions tests."

Just shy of a decade old, Kennedy Catholic's PSAT course, always far more than "teaching to the test," continues to evolve and actively adapt.

"We constantly reflect and review. We are big on item analysis," Kelly said. "We get data from the College Board to see exactly how many students answered a particular question incorrectly, and then we go back and fine-tune the teaching. Every year presents a new challenge, and we're up for it.

"It's all about expectations,” Kelly said. “We have the expectation here at Kennedy that if we teach the material well, then the students will learn it. Even on the ACT, our students perform well. The PSAT course helps them prepare for all standardized tests, even those they may encounter when pursuing graduate studies. We are proud of our results and we are proud to have so many sitting for both Regents and college entrance exams."


Kennedy Catholic High School
54 Route 138
Somers, NY 10589

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