Colchester High School students complete an assignment in class on Wednesday, Oct. 11 before taking a free PSAT examination during the school day. (Courtesy photo/Meghan Baule)

Over 300 juniors and seniors picked up sharp No. 2 pencils last Wednesday morning and took the Preliminary SAT assessment at Colchester High School for free, thanks to a grant from the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.

This is the second time the district has secured the Gear-Up Grant, which totaled just under $5,000 and allowed the district to administer the test to students within the context of a normal school day, high school principal Heather Baron said.

“The PSATs are really the first gateway, or door, into considering post-secondary education,” Baron said. “Having it be something that students have to pay for and opt into on Saturdays automatically categorizes students into ‘going to college,’ [or] ‘not going to college.’”

By building the test into the existing schedule, Baron said, the school could alleviate any inequities based on time, resources or a student’s perception of his or her own capability of attending college.

The setup sends “a message to all students that we see all of them as potentially pursuing education post-secondary,” Baron said.

The PSAT is also used as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship, a program that recognizes the top 16,000 student scores among a pool of 1.6 million test-takers.

This year, three Colchester students were named semi-finalists: Jacob Dell, Megan Lagerquist and Charlie Davidson. It is an unusually high number for CHS, according to Baron, who said just a handful of other schools across the state posted the same achievement.

For 17-year-old Dell, the designation prompted him to expand his college search. Most of the nine schools he’s applying to are in the northeast, but two — Alabama and Oklahoma — break the mold.

That’s because the pair of schools both offer serious incentives for Merit Scholars, including a fully covered tuition package, a year of free housing and stipends to offset the cost of books, fees and travel expenses.

“Having that window open, it makes a lot more sense for me to look at schools like Alabama than it would otherwise,” said Dell, who plans to study some form of chemistry after high school.

Colchester High School students Charlie Davidson (left), Megan Lagerquist and Jacob Dell were named National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists thanks to their high scores on the PSAT. (Courtesy photo/Meghan Baule)

The National Merit program has been on his radar for some time, Dell said, because his sister also secured the accolade and, in turn, graduated debt free.

Still, he said taking the PSAT would have benefited him even if he wasn’t aiming for the top percentiles. His own scores climbed chronologically through two rounds of PSAT testing and one attempt at the SAT.

“Each time [there] was just that familiarity with the testing atmosphere and with the kinds of questions I was going to have to be answering,” Dell said.

That’s another benefit of offering the PSAT to all students in school, Baron said. With an emphasis on flexible pathways and personalized learning, some kids may be less accustomed to the traditional standardized testing model.

“It’s great to have a first experience be on the PSATs so that the first experience is not on the SATs where it’s much more high stakes and much more expensive,” Baron said.

In her view, the PSAT ultimately symbolizes one of the initial obstacles students will face as they begin to evaluate their future plans.

“This is the first time that the students are standing at a door thinking, ‘Which one am I going to take?’” Baron said. “[We] open the door and say, ‘You are going to through this door — there might be other doors and other hurdles that we can’t open for you, but we will open as many as we can to get you as far as we can.’”