PSAT Memes Are Causing a College Board Crackdown (and Teen Revolution)

If you're older than 17, then scrolling through Twitter this week is like reading a different language. There are jokes about toothbrushed tomatoes and about bits and bobs. There are GIFs galore featuring seagrass and pingpong balls. And, for some reason, everyone keeps insulting shrimp ex-husbands.

PSAT memes are back.

Students across the country on Wednesday took the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, an annual standardized exam administered by the College Board and known more simply as the PSAT. It's a serious test—students' results can determine their eligibility for major scholarships and give them an idea of their college readiness—but the aftermath is chaos. On Wednesday, teenagers put down their pencils and picked up their phones to share memes about the test questions, simultaneously creating a nationwide inside joke and a colossal problem for the College Board.

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The PSAT memes phenomenon started in 2014, when a user on the subreddit /r/teenagers made a thread saying, "hey guys let's illegally discuss the PSAT," according to Know Your Meme. The user was referring to students signing an agreement not to discuss the test content in social media posts, emails or text messages.

The thread broke the seal, and in 2015 and 2016 PSAT memes about Herminia, artisan bagels and toadfish went viral, making headlines in The Washington Post and Daily Dot as adults tried to discern meaning from the nonsensical tweets without having access to the source material. 

This week, though, the College Board began to crack down, attempting in vain to enforce a contract that may or may not be binding.

"Students are notified that disclosing exam content, regardless of topic, can result in their scores being canceled," a spokeswoman told Newsweek. "It is important that students abide by this policy in order to ensure the fairness and integrity of the tests."

Online, the New York City–based nonprofit first cleverly tried to appeal to its audience. It created a PSAT meme of its own, tweeting a now-famous image of Meryl Streep singing at a 2015 awards ceremony and writing, "Do Not Share Test Content Online." Then it became the bad cop and began to reply to specific tweets tagged with #PSAT.

"Can you delete this tweet? We ask that students not share test content on social media. Thanks," it wrote to nine people.

Students, of course, defiantly replied with even more memes that included detailed references to the questions they're not supposed to discuss. They also made fun of the College Board for trying to stop them from making the jokes.

The College Board has made it clear it does not think the memes are funny. With the tips people are posting, at least one expert has been able to uncover two passages he believes appeared on the top-secret test. Akil Bello, an exam prep teacher, tweeted links to a Scientific American article about tomatoes and an excerpt from the book An Unnecessary Woman​ in which the narrator mentions her "shrimp of an ex-husband."

"We appreciate that students share their experiences on social media," College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg told the Post in 2015. "As part of their test experience, they have acknowledged that they will not share specific test content."

PSAT memes are just the latest challenge for the College Board and the SAT.

Ever since 2012, the rival ACT exam has reigned as the most popular college readiness test. More than 2 million high school graduates took the ACT last year, but only 1.8 million took the SAT—despite the launch of a redesigned exam that in part included a new scoring system with no penalty for guessing. At the same time, hundreds of colleges and universities have recently gone test-optional, meaning they no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores and instead review applicants holistically.

At least one other person isn't thrilled with the digital landslide of PSAT memes: Harry Klee, who stars in many of them. Klee's tomato research was apparently mentioned in a passage on the Wednesday test, and now he's temporarily internet famous.

Klee, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida, didn't know why he was getting so many phone calls and emails from teenagers until Newsweek explained it to him on Thursday morning. Klee said he was both annoyed and flattered by the sudden attention.

"I'm pleasantly surprised that someone actually read an article about our work and thought it was interesting," he added. "I was in high school once, too, so I guess I can appreciate kids doing this."

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