Picture this: you sit down to take an SAT Subject Test. You answer somewhere from 50 to 95 questions in an hour. A few weeks later, you log on to your College Board account and see a score for your test from 200 to 800. Somehow, the results from your multiple-choice test got turned into this final scaled score. But how does this happen? How are SAT Subject Tests scored?
In this article, I’ll discuss how your raw score for the exam is calculated, how this is converted into your final score, and what SAT Subject Test scoring means for you in terms of setting—and meeting—a target score.
How Your Raw Score Is Calculated
Your raw score is your point total on the SAT Subject Test before it’s converted to your final reported score on the 200-800 point scale. If there are 60 questions, then the highest raw score you could get is 60.
However, on the SAT Subject Tests, unlike on most exams you take, your raw score isn’t based only on how many questions you get right, but also how many questions you get wrong. The so-called “guessing penalty,” designed to discourage random guessing, means that for every question you get wrong, a fraction of a point is deducted from your raw point total for questions you’ve answered correctly.The point deduction for answering a given question incorrectly is based on the number of answer choices for the question, as follows:
- 1/4 point for 5-choice questions
- 1/3 point for 4-choice questions
- 1/2 point for 3-choice questions
Most questions on SAT Subject Tests are 5-choice multiple choice questions, so the guessing penalty is usually a quarter point. Interestingly, the College Board has done away with the guessing penalty on the recently revised SAT. But the penalty remains for the Subject Tests.
Subject Test raw scores are rounded to the nearest whole point; 1/2 points and above are rounded up and below 1/2 points are rounded down. So a 33.25 would be rounded down to 33 while a 33.5 would be rounded up to 34.
Your raw score, then, can be expressed as follows:
raw score (rounded to nearest whole number)
If, on a 60-question Subject Test like Literature, you answer 45 questions right, get 5 wrong, and leave 10 blank, your raw score would be:
- 45 answered correctly - 5 answered incorrectly x .25 guessing penalty =
- 45 - 1.25 = 43.75
- 43.75 rounded to the nearest whole number = 44
- Raw score = 44 points
To recap: SAT Subject Test scoring is based on both how many questions you get right and how many you get wrong. Once that number is established, though, how does the College Board come up with your 200-800 point score? Read on to find out!
The College Board: a pictorial representation.
How Your Final Score Is Calculated
If you have been taking practice tests from the College Board’s Official Study Guide to All SAT Subject Tests, you may have noticed that there is a chart for converting your raw score on a practice test to a scaled score at the back of each practice exam. This chart will give you a loose ballpark as to how a certain raw score on the test might convert to a scaled score from 200 to 800 points, but it is not exact. There is no consistent formula to convert a raw score to a scaled score.
This is because the College Board “equates” the scaled scores so that scores are comparable between different editions of the test. Equating accounts for small difficulty variations between test editions and minor variations between the average skill levels of test-takers on different test dates. Basically, your individual score won’t suffer if the people who sat for your Subject Test on a particular date were unusually strong in the subject (nor will it be better if the people who sat with you were unusually weak).
This means that the 650 from the Math II test you took in November reflects the same level of mastery as Anya’s 650 score on the same subject next May, even if your administration of the test was full of state math team champions and hers was full of people who failed geometry.
Equating is to your advantage—you don’t want to have to worry about who else is taking the test the same day as you or if your edition of the test will be a little harder than usual.
I do not, unfortunately, know the witchcraft (and by witchcraft I mean statistics) through which the equating process occurs. Nor could I learn unless I had access to lots of secret College Board test data. I do, however, have some advice on how to approach the relationship between raw scores and scaled scores.
The Magic Castle where equating takes place.
Setting a Target Raw Score
You may be wondering what raw score you should be targeting based on your target scaled score. Due to the equating process and variation between test editions, there’s no way to determine exactly what raw score you need to hit a target scaled score, but there are ways to get an idea.
For starters, if you have the Official Study Guide to ALL SAT Subject Tests book put out by the College Board (which I highly recommend if you are taking subject tests), you can flip to the raw score - scaled score conversion chart at the back of the practice test for your subject and get a decent approximation of what raw score you should be aiming for.
For example, on Literature, you can see that a raw score of 55 out of 61 possible is a 770. On Math II, a 46 (out of 50 possible) is an 800. And so on.
You can also check out the released percentiles for last year’s Subject Tests. These will tell you what percentile rank each scaled score corresponds to. They won’t tell you the corresponding raw score, but you can still get a decent idea of how many questions you can afford to get wrong for a top score.
How can you figure this out? By the percentile rankings. If an 800 is a 99th percentile score, as for Literature and Math Level 1, the curve is going to be much steeper than for a test like Math Level 2, where an 800 is only an 80th percentile score. That means, to get an 800 on Math 2, you only have to score better than 80% of students, while to get an 800 on Math 1 you have to score better than 99% of exam-takers. Basically, the higher that percentile number is for an 800 score, the fewer questions you can afford to get wrong for a score at the top of the range. This also means, though, that a top score for those exams really stands out.
You can also check out the average scores for each Subject Test. A high average score doesn’t necessarily mean the test is easy, though—it could also mean that the students who take the test tend to have a high skill level in the subject. Also, on tests with high averages, it can be hard to really differentiate yourself from the pack, so that’s something else to keep in mind.
There’s no secret way to know what raw score will correspond to a given scaled score when you sit down to take a Subject Test, but you can get a ballpark idea of how to meet your target scaled score from Official SAT conversion charts and percentile rankings from previous years’ exams.
Stand out like the ballerina in the front. Wait, Elsa, is that you?
Meeting a Target Raw Score
Due to the guessing penalty, meeting a raw target score isn’t as simple as answering a certain number of questions correctly. You also need to think about the points you’ll lose from guessing and incorrect answers.
The guessing penalty doesn’t mean that you should never guess if you aren’t completely sure of the answer. The more answer choices you can eliminate, the better your chances are of getting the right answer and avoiding the penalty.
Let’s go over the math. Most SAT Subject Test questions have five answer choices. Guessing randomly, you have a 20% chance of guessing correctly. This means you would, mostly likely, get one in five questions correct while randomly guessing. One question correct = 1 point, four questions wrong at a -.25 penalty per question = -1 points. You net zero points, but, more importantly, you’ve wasted time. So, random guessing is not a great strategy.
What if you can eliminate one answer choice per question? This means, assuming you’ve eliminated the answer correctly, that you have a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. So that’s one in four questions correct. One question correct = 1 point, three questions wrong at a -.25 penalty = -.75 points. That’s a net of .25 points!
But is this really worth it? Remember that raw scores are rounded to the nearest whole number, so if you are guessing on four questions this way, your .25 points won’t help you go up a point—they’ll just be rounded back down. So, unless you guess on eight questions with one answer choice eliminated per question, you are not likely to net any gains to your raw score this way.
It’s a different story if you can eliminate two answer choices per question. If you guess on three 5-choice questions and you can eliminate two answers each for each of those questions, you have a 33% chance of getting the answer right for each question. Chances are, then, that you’ll get one of those three questions right. That’s one point. You’ll get penalized for your two wrong answers by .25 points each. That’s -.5 points.
One point gained - .5 point penalty = .5 points. Since raw scores are rounded to the nearest point, that adds a point to your raw score! Awesome. And your chances only go up the more answer choices you can eliminate.
Keep in mind this is just probability; if you’re lucky or unlucky in your guessing you could have better or worse results. But the math is definitely on your side for guessing if you can successfully eliminate two answers; this will help you boost your raw score and meet your target goal.
SAT Subject Test scoring is a little unusual because your score doesn’t just account for how many questions you answered correctly—it also includes deductions for questions you answered incorrectly. Your raw score is calculated by subtracting the penalty for each question you got wrong from the points of questions you answered correctly, rounded to the nearest whole number.
The College Board then converts your raw score to a scaled score by a process called “equating” so that scores from different administrations of the test are comparable to each other.
Because of this, it’s hard to say with total certainty what raw score you need to hit a particular scaled score, but you can get a general idea from the conversion charts at the back of the practice tests in the Official Guide to ALL SAT Subject Tests and previous years’ percentile rankings.
When you're trying to hit your target raw score, remember that, on questions you aren't totally sure of, the more answers you can eliminate, the better your chances of guessing the correct answer and beating that guessing penalty.
You can do it, you beautiful SAT butterfly!
The rarely-seen SAT butterfly.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.