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SAT Curve: Is It Real?

Posted by Hannah Muniz | May 4, 2017 12:00:00 PM

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 (excluding the Essay), 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. So 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 that long, 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.

 

2005-06 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

 

Before we analyze each SAT curve chart, keep in mind that these tables are for the old SAT; therefore, the Reading and Writing scores are not combined for an overall EBRW score as they are currently. In addition, unlike the new SAT, on the old SAT you could score lower than a 0 due to penalties for incorrect answers.

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 100-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 graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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