How Does the Curve Work for the SAT?
When you think of a grading curve, you’re probably most familiar with the kind sometimes employed on high school tests or assignments. This traditional curve takes the scores achieved by students in your class and distributes them across an even bell curve so that some students get the top grade, most students get a grade somewhere in the middle, and some students get the bottom grade. In this kind of scoring curve, the absolute values you score on a test or assignment are less important than your relative performance within your class.
But when people talk about the scoring curve on the SAT, is this the kind of curve they mean? Each year, around 1.7 million high school seniors take the SAT, most of whom presumably intend to use the results as they apply for college admissions or scholarships. This number does not include the many additional students each year who take the test earlier in their high school careers. So how can a standardized test with so many students taking it, whose age and experience vary so widely, be curved?
Well, the short answer: it isn’t, at least not in the way that most students think of a scoring curve. While your test is still converted from a raw score to a scaled score, your score does not depend on your performance relative to the performance of others on the same test. Instead, the score conversion relies on a number of precisely considered factors.
To learn more about how your SAT score is calculated and some common misconceptions about the process, read on.
How is the SAT scored?
When you take the SAT, you actually take several smaller subject-specific tests, which combine to form the larger SAT. These include the Math test and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test, which contains separate Writing and Reading sections.
On each section, you are given a raw score. This score is simply the total number of correct answers you submitted in each section. But the raw score does not appear anywhere on your score report. Instead, it is used to calculate your scaled score through a process called equating.
Raw scores are equated to a scaled score for each test, ranging from 200-800. The process of equating scores takes into account the specific difficulty of each version of the test. Because several different test forms are given during each test administration, the specific equating process for your test will depend on the specific version of the test that you took, and it may be different than the equating process applied to the tests of people sitting next to you.
Scaled scores derived from equating make it possible to compare scores obtained from different versions of the SAT. They ensure that an even scale exists on which a specific score indicates the exact same level of mastery, regardless of how difficult your test was.
How are scores curved on the SAT?
The equating process is quite different from a traditional scoring curve. Instead of taking into account how the greater population performed on the SAT, it takes into account how difficult your version of the SAT was compared to other versions. This is to ensure that there is no advantage to getting an easier test and no disadvantage to getting a harder test.
If you happen to take an easier form of the SAT and therefore receive a higher raw score, the equating process will account for this variation when converting your score. Any mistakes that you did make on the easier test will count more than a mistake would count on a harder version of the test. Similarly, the equating process is more forgiving for students who take a more difficult version of the test.
Who decides the difficulty of my SAT?
The goal when creating new test questions for the SAT is to create questions that are very similar in difficulty to questions that already exist. Detailed content and statistical specifications along with trial questions are used to inform test writers about the difficulty of each question.
While some SAT exams are definitely more difficult than others, in general the variation is fairly small and the equating process does not differ hugely from one test to another.
To see the differences in score conversions that you might expect, check out the score conversion charts supplied for two official SAT practice tests, located on page 7 of each packet:
If you compare the math conversion charts for each test, you will see that a raw score of 48 on Practice Test #1 will earn you a scaled score of 680, but a raw score of 48 on Practice Test #2 will earn you a scaled score of 700. While this might seem like a significant disparity, remember that this discrepancy accounts for differences in the difficulty of the test. Practice Test #1 must have slightly easier questions than Practice Test #2, so scores from that test are converted on a steeper curve.
When is the easiest SAT generally administered?
Because many people do not understand the equating process used to convert SAT scores, there is a common misconception that some test administration dates will have a more difficult scoring curve than others. Specifically, many students assume that the October test administration, when many high school seniors are taking the SAT for the final time before college admissions, will have a harder curve.
Remember, though, that your score is not related to another’s score. A large group of strong students taking the test at the same time as you will not push your score down, just as a large group of weaker students will not push your score up.
In addition, there are multiple versions of the SAT administered on each test date, so even if you took the SAT on a date when the “easiest” SAT was being administered, there is no guarantee that that’s the version that would land on your desk. And even if it did, there would be no ultimate scoring reward, since the equating process would account for the difficulty (or lack thereof) on the version of the test that you took.
How can I calculate my scaled SAT from my raw score?
Unless you have a copy of the score conversion chart produced specifically for the test that you took, you cannot convert your own score. That’s why it’s important on practice tests to follow the scoring instructions provided with each test, and not blindly apply scoring instructions from one practice test to the scoring of another practice test.
While the variation between each version will be relatively slight, if you want an accurate picture of your performance, you need to use the correct scoring conversion chart.
How can I ensure that my scaled score is the highest it could be?
We often hear from students who want to know when the best date is to take the SAT, or which testing facilities are favorable. While we appreciate the desire to maximize your achievement, the truth is that there is no magic formula to SAT achievement. No testing date will be easier than another. No test facility administers easier versions of the test. And no amount of peer influence will affect the way that your raw score in equated to a scaled score.
The best date to take the SAT is the one on which you’re fully prepared for the test. The only way to ensure that your scaled score is the highest it could possibly be is to ensure that you’ve gone through all possible steps to study and prepare ahead of time. This might mean joining a study group, hiring a tutor, or gathering as many study materials as possible for your own independent preparation.
Here are some CollegeVine study guides to get you started:
Of course, in addition to knowing the content of the test, you’ll also need to study the test format and common test strategies. You should know exactly what to expect on test day when you walk into the SAT.
There is no single trick or insider knowledge that can boost your SAT score on its own. The only way to do that is through good, old-fashioned hard work, including studying the content, test format, and test strategy well in advance.
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