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SAT Curve: Is It Real?

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Posted by Hannah Muniz | Jul 3, 2021 11:00:00 AM

SAT General Info

 

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Many high school tests are curved, but what about the SAT? Is the SAT curved? Can when or whom you take the exam with affect your final SAT score?

In this article, we'll answer all of your questions about the SAT curve. First, we'll closely examine whether there actually is an SAT curve and discuss how the SAT is scored. We'll then look at SAT curve trends and give you tips on how you can use SAT curves to your advantage.

 

Is the SAT Curved?

Contrary to what you may believe, there is no SAT curve. This means your SAT score will never be affected by how other test takers perform on the test. So even if everyone you took the SAT with were to perform poorly on it, the College Board would not raise everyone's SAT scores to account for the surplus of low test scores.

In other words, you will never receive an SAT score higher than what you actually earned on the test, regardless of whom you took the test with.

But if the SAT isn't curved relative to other test takers, how does its scoring system work? Is an 800 in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) on one SAT the same as a perfect EBRW score on another? Or is it more difficult to score highly on certain test dates?

To account for slight differences in difficulty among SATs, the College Board uses a system known as equating. This process ensures that SAT scores are consistent across tests and will always indicate the same level of ability no matter when you take the SAT. So a 650 Math score on one SAT will always correspond to a 650 Math score on another SAT—even if one test contains easier Math questions.

In the College Board's words:

"This [equating] process ensures that no student receives an advantage or disadvantage from taking a particular form of the test on a particular day ;* a score of 400 on one test form is equivalent to a score of 400 on another test form."

*Emphasis mine.

Through this equating process, or "SAT curves," the College Board can account for slight variations in difficulty among SATs to give test takers on different test dates the same opportunity to achieve their goal scores.

As a result, there is no single best time to take the SAT. Regardless of how easy or difficult a test may be, all SATs are equated so that getting a certain scaled score will always require the same amount of effort and level of ability.

So how is the SAT scored? And how is it equated? Read on to find out.

 

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How Do SAT Curves Work?

Before we get into the SAT equating process, let's do a quick recap of the scoring system. Both the EBRW and Math scores use scales of 200-800 and combine to give you a composite score range of 400-1600. But you likely know there aren't 1,600 total questions on the SAT. So then how are these scaled scores calculated?

On the SAT, you earn one point for every question you answer correctly. (You do not lose any points for incorrect or blank answers.)

All of your correct answers combine to give you a raw score for each section. If you were to correctly answer 45 out of 58 Math questions, your raw Math score would equal 45. This raw score is subsequently converted into a Math section score (i.e., your final scaled score).

But the process is a little more complicated for the Reading and Writing sections. Like the Math section, your Reading and Writing performances are assigned raw scores based on the number of questions you answered correctly. These raw scores are then converted into test scores on a scale of 10-40. Finally, the test scores are added together and multiplied by 10 to give you an EBRW score (on a scale of 200-800—the same as it is for Math).

But here's the caveat: raw scores on one SAT will not necessarily convert into the same scaled scores on another. Why is there this discrepancy?

Each SAT varies slightly in content and difficulty, and so to account for these variations, the College Board translates raw scores into scaled scores using individual equating formulas for each test. This essentially means you'll never be able to know before you take the SAT how a raw score will convert into a scaled score.

That said, by looking at a score conversion table from an official SAT practice test, we can get a rough idea as to how the equating process works for each SAT. These conversion tables—which differ slightly with each test due to differences in equating formulas—show us how raw scores convert into scaled scores for different sections of the test.

The two tables below are based on the score conversion tables for Practice Test #6 and Practice Test #7 (both of which are copies of real SATs!).

 

SAT Practice Test #6 Raw Score Conversion Chart

Raw Score Math Section Score Reading Test Score Writing and Language Test Score
0 200 10 10
1 200 10 10
2 210 10 10
3 230 10 11
4 250 11 11
5 260 12 12
6 280 13 13
7 290 14 14
8 310 15 15
9 320 15 16
10 330 16 16
11 340 17 17
12 350 17 18
13 360 18 18
14 380 18 19
15 390 19 20
16 400 19 20
17 410 20 21
18 420 20 22
19 430 21 23
20 440 21 23
21 450 22 24
22 460 22 25
23 470 23 25
24 490 23 26
25 500 24 27
26 510 24 27
27 510 25 28
28 520 25 28
29 530 26 29
30 530 26 30
31 540 27 30
32 550 27 31
33 560 28 31
34 570 28 32
35 580 29 33
36 590 29 34
37 590 30 34
38 600 30 35
39 610 31 36
40 620 31 36
41 630 32 38
42 640 33 39
43 650 33 39
44 660 34 40
45 670 35  
46 670 36  
47 680 37  
48 690 37  
49 700 38  
50 710 39  
51 720 40  
52 730 40  
53 740    
54 760    
55 770    
56 780    
57 790    
58 800    

Source: Scoring Your SAT Practice Test #6

 

body_hug_cat.jpgOverwhelmed by all of the numbers? Time for kitty therapy.

 

SAT Practice Test #7 Raw Score Conversion Chart

Raw Score Math Section Score Reading Test Score Writing and Language Test Score
0 200 10 10
1 200 10 10
2 210 10 10
3 230 10 10
4 250 11 11
5 260 12 12
6 280 13 12
7 290 14 13
8 310 15 14
9 320 15 15
10 330 16 15
11 350 17 16
12 360 17 17
13 370 18 18
14 380 18 18
15 390 19 19
16 400 20 19
17 420 20 20
18 430 21 21
19 430 21 22
20 440 22 22
21 450 22 23
22 460 23 24
23 470 23 25
24 480 24 25
25 490 24 26
26 500 25 26
27 510 25 27
28 510 26 28
29 520 26 29
30 530 27 29
31 530 27 30
32 540 28 31
33 550 28 31
34 550 29 32
35 560 29 32
36 570 30 33
37 580 30 34
38 590 31 34
39 590 31 35
40 600 32 36
41 610 32 36
42 620 33 37
43 630 34 39
44 640 35 40
45 650 35  
46 660 36  
47 670 37  
48 680 37  
49 680 38  
50 690 39  
51 700 39  
52 720 40  
53 730    
54 740    
55 760    
56 770    
57 790    
58 800    

Source: Scoring Your SAT Practice Test #7

 

Just by glancing at these charts, you can probably tell there are several minor differences in how the raw scores for Math, Reading, and Writing convert into scaled or test scores.

For Math, a raw score of 40 would net you 620 on Test #6 but only 600 on Test #7! This hints that the Math section on Test #7 is a little easier than that on Test #6. How can we tell? On Test #7, you must answer more questions correctly (and obtain a higher raw score of 42) to get a scaled score of 620.

The trends are similar for Reading. You could get a perfect 40 on Reading on Test #6, even if you were to miss a question (and earn a raw score of 51). On Test #7, however, missing just one question reduces your Reading test score to 39. Once again, we can see a minute difference in difficulty: the Reading section on Test #6 is slightly more difficult than that on Test #7, and has thus been equated so that even if you were to miss a question you will still get a perfect score.

You'll find similar differences among the Writing scores, too. A raw score of 42 will nab you a near-perfect test score of 39 on Test #6 but a noticeably lower 37 on Test #7.

Ultimately, through these tables, we can confirm that raw SAT scores do not consistently convert into the same scaled scores for each test. So while you can't know for sure how many questions you'll need to answer correctly on the SAT in order to get the scaled scores you want, you can use the tables above to give yourself an idea as to how your raw scores may translate into scaled scores on test day.

 

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How Has the SAT Curve Changed Over Time?

Because the new SAT hasn't been around for that many years, and the data the College Board puts out is limited, we can't determine yet how much the SAT curves have changed with each testing year. That being said, we can look at some of the official score range tables for previous testing years (for the old, pre-2016 SAT) to get a feel for how the new SAT might experience similar trends.

Score range tables show us how raw scores convert into scaled scores for entire testing years. For this analysis, we'll be looking at a 10-year difference using the 2005-06 and 2015-16 raw score to scaled score range tables for the old SAT.

 

2005-2006 SAT Score Range Table

Raw Score Critical Reading Raw Score Mathematics Raw Score Writing (Multiple Choice)
67 800        
65 790-800        
60 710-740        
55 660-680 54 800    
50 620-640 50 710-750 49 800
45 580-600 45 650-690 45 700-770
40 550-570 40 610-640 40 630-670
35 520-530 35 570-600 35 570-610
30 490-500 30 530-550 30 520-560
25 460-470 25 490-510 25 480-510
20 420-440 20 450-470 20 440-470
15 390-410 15 410-430 15 400-430
10 350-380 10 370-390 10 350-380
5 290-330 5 310-340 5 300-330
0 200-270 0 210-260 0 210-260
-5 200 -5 200 -5 200 

Source: SAT Raw Score to Scaled Score Ranges 2005-06

 

2015-16 SAT Score Range Table

Raw Score Critical Reading Raw Score Mathematics Raw Score Writing (Multiple Choice)
67 800        
65 790-800        
60 710-740        
55 650-680 54 800    
50 610-630 50 700-730 49 800
45 570-590 45 650-670 45 690-720
40 540-560 40 600-620 40 620-650
35 510-520 35 560-570 35 560-600
30 480-490 30 520-530 30 510-550
25 450-460 25 480-490 25 470-500
20 420-430 20 440-460 20 420-460
15 380-400 15 400-420 15 380-410
10 340-360 10 350-380 10 340-370
5 290-320 5 300-330 5 280-320
0 200-240 0 220-260 0 200-240
-5 200 -5 200 -5 200

Source: SAT Raw Score to Scaled Score Range 2015-16

 

Let's start with the SAT Math curve. According to the data above, a raw Math score of 50 gave test takers as high as 750 in the 2005-06 testing year but only as high as 730 in the 2015-16 testing year. Similarly, if you look at the highest possible scaled score for each Math range, you'll find that the 2005-06 maximums are consistently (albeit only marginally) higher than those on the 2015-16 table. What this pattern tells us is that, on average, the Math sections on the 2005-06 SATs were slightly harder than those on the 2015-16 SATs. This is evidenced by the fact you typically needed to score more raw points in 2015-16 to get the same scaled Math scores in 2005-06.

But what about the other sections? On Writing, you used to be able to earn up to 49 raw points. In 2005-06, you could score as high as 770 with a raw score of 45 but only as high as 720 with the same raw score in 2015-16. And with the SAT Critical Reading curve, the 2005-06 and 2015-16 ranges are mostly the same, give or take 10 points.

Based on all of this information, then, what can we conclude about the SAT curve? The tables indicate that the number of questions you must answer correctly to get certain scaled scores has stayed roughly the same over the years. Generally speaking, the variations among scaled scores on each section are minimal—usually only 10- or 20-point differences at most. Therefore, these patterns—along with the fact that SAT percentiles hardly change each year—imply that the difficulty of the SAT has stayed relatively consistent over time.

 

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Using the SAT Curve to Your Advantage: 5 Do's and Don'ts

By now you may be wondering how the SAT curve can help you, personally. Below, I give you the do's and don'ts of what to do with this knowledge about the SAT equating system, so that you can give yourself a better shot at getting the SAT scores you need for college.

 

Do:

  • Use raw score conversion tables to estimate how many correct answers you'll need to get the scaled scores you want. My recommendation is to first figure out your SAT goal scores. Once you have these scores, use any raw score conversion table from an SAT practice test (or multiple tests) to get a feel for the raw scores you'll need on each section in order to hit your (scaled) goal scores on test day. (Tests #5, #6, and #7 are all former SATs, so these are great tests to use!)
  • Take the SAT curve with a grain of salt. Although the equating process can be helpful, at the end of the day nobody (except the College Board!) knows the exact equating formula for the SAT you're going to take. So don't worry too much about raw scores and how they convert into scaled scores—just know that while you can use equating tables to help you estimate the number of correct answers you'll need, this data will never be 100-percent applicable to your particular test.

 

Don't:

  • Confuse the SAT equating process with a regular curve. As I mentioned before, there is no SAT curve—at least not in the traditional sense. On the SAT, how other test takers score has zero bearing on your score (though it does affect your SAT percentile). The only factor that influences your scaled score is the equating process, which varies with each SAT to ensure scaled scores represent the same levels of ability across tests.
  • Assume when you take the test will affect your score. Again, this is a common misconception. Many people believe certain tests are easier to score higher on than others due to variations in difficulty or different abilities of test takers. But this isn't true! The equating process makes it so you don't gain or lose any likelihood of attaining a certain score, no matter when or with whom you take the SAT.
  • Try to game the system. Because you can't know for certain how your raw SAT scores will convert into scaled scores, it's impossible to use what we know about the equating process to cheat the system and guarantee yourself a higher score. Anyone who claims this is possible is flat-out wrong!

 

body_popcorn-1.jpgNow, sit back and grab your popcorn—it's time for the recap!

 

Recap: What Is the SAT Curve? How Does It Work?

So is the SAT curved? In short, no, the SAT isn't curved. However, the College Board does use an equating system, which ensures scaled SAT scores always correlate to the same levels of ability, no matter when you take the test.

Although there's no way of knowing for sure just how your raw scores will convert into scaled scores, you can use raw score to scaled score range tables from official SAT practice tests to help you approximate the number of questions you'll need to answer correctly on test day, so you can get the scaled scores you want. Unfortunately, these tables aren't a hundred percent reliable, as each test uses a different equating formula (that only the College Board knows).

Lastly, don't try to use the SAT curve to cheat the SAT. As long as you study hard and use high-quality resources, you'll be on your way to a high SAT score (and hopefully the college of your dreams) in no time!

 

What's Next?

You understand how the SAT curve works—but what about the scoring system? Read our in-depth guide to how the SAT is scored to learn more about the equating process and how subscores and cross-test scores come into play.

Want to learn more about SAT scores? Find your goal score with our step-by-step guide and learn about the current averages. Once you're finished with those, check out my article on SAT scores for colleges to see what kinds of scores you'll need for popular schools!

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love my analysis of the ACT curve!

 

Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

 

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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