Is the SAT® Curved? Understanding the SAT Scoring Process

Is the SAT graded on a Curve?
Discover the truth about the SAT® curve and find out what it means for your college applications. Learn how a test is curved and calculated in this blog.
Is the SAT graded on a Curve?
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Important SAT Update: Transition to Digital SAT
Effective December 3, 2023, the traditional paper-and-pencil format of the SAT has been discontinued. Starting in 2024, all students are required to take the Digital SAT, ushering in substantial changes in duration, format, material coverage, and question types. This shift to the Digital SAT represents a departure from traditional testing methods. It is crucial for students, educators, and test-takers to acquaint themselves with the new examination structure. Read more about the Digital SAT here.

Students often assume that the SAT® is scored on a curve because curving is typically used to grade high-school tests. But is the SAT curved? And if not, then what’s the alternative to an SAT score curve? Read on to find out how the SAT test is actually scored!

Is the SAT Graded on a Curve?

College Board® reports that, contrary to popular belief, the SAT is not graded on a curve. That means you are not evaluated based on how well you did compared to other test-takers who took the SAT the same day. Students take different versions of the test anyway, so it would be difficult to compare their performances. This practice reduces opportunities to cheat and allows the College Board to make routine updates. However, exam versions will naturally vary in difficulty and it wouldn’t be fair for a student to get a lower score simply because his or her SAT version happened to be more difficult.

This is where equating comes in handy. Equating balances these differences in difficulty by “equalizing” their scores. In other words, the College Board makes calculations to ensure that a 540 on one exam version means the same thing as a 540 on another. For example, imagine that you and your friend each take different versions of the SAT. You score 520 on the Math section, and your friend scores 540. These are “raw scores.” They haven’t been adjusted based on difficulty yet. Now, let’s say the College Board determines that your exam was actually a bit tougher than your friend’s version, so they adjust your score into a “scaled score” of 540. This widely accepted process is the norm for many other standardized tests, too.

Raw Score for Exam Version A
Scaled Score for Exam Version B

The scaling system may sometimes result in confusing discrepancies between SAT scores, however. For instance, let’s say you took the test twice—once in May, then a second time in October. Both times, you got a 650 in reading. On round one of testing, you got 15 questions wrong. But the second time, you only got 13 questions wrong. Naturally, you might be wondering how you could end up with the same score when you actually did better on that section the second time. However, in this scenario, College Board determined that the first test you took in the spring was a little more difficult than the one you took in the fall.

The important thing to remember here is that your final scaled score is what’s on your SAT score report. Your raw score will not play a role in college admissions decisions.

Practice with difficult questions so the real exam feels easy.
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Why Isn’t the SAT Curved?

Curving is a method of adjusting the scores of an exam or a test to account for differences in the performance of the students in a class. When a test is graded on a curve, your score goes up or down depending on how well the rest of your testing cohort did that day. A curve is unfair because it ultimately limits how many students can get top scores. The method of curving a test or an exam is used by teachers to monitor the progress of students in a particular class. Most non-standardized exams, like your classroom tests in high school, are curved, with the highest scorer setting the curve. Curving typically does not apply to standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT®.

Illustration of Scores Curving

The chart above illustrates how curving ensures that a certain number of students get higher grades, like A’s and B’s, while fewer students get lower grades, like D’s and F’s. Teachers typically use curving when a test turns out to be more difficult than anticipated so that a large number of students don’t fail.

How to Calculate the Curve for a Non-Standardized Test

Let’s try to understand this method with an example. Suppose the highest score on a particular class is 90 out of 100, and the teacher wants to curve the test. In order to do that, they will have to adjust the 90 to make it a 100. The teacher does this by adding 10 points to 90. With the highest score now being adjusted to 100, the curve for this exam is set to 10 points. This means that everyone’s score would receive an additional 10 points. Now, if the passing cutoff had been previously set as 40 points out of 100, a student who had scored a 30 and failed the test could now pass by receiving this 10-point boost and achieving a score of 40. The difference between the total score and the highest score determines whether the curve is high or low, with a high curve requiring more points to reach 100, and low curve requiring lesser points to make 100.

Final Takeaways

In conclusion, an SAT curve does not exist! Curving and equating a test are two methods of adjusting test scores. While curving adjusts test scores based on student performance, with the highest earned score set at 100%, equating adjusts scores to account for differences in test difficulty. We can see that an SAT score bell curve wouldn’t provide an accurate measurement of a student’s performance because scores would change based on everyone else’s performance. In contrast, equating SAT scores ensures that your score is based only on how you perform, whether you get a more difficult exam or not.

Is there a penalty for guessing on the SAT?

There is no penalty for getting a question wrong on the SAT. That means it’s better to attempt all the questions rather than skip the ones you aren’t sure of. Making an educated guess is better than just randomly selecting an answer. Look at the answer choices and eliminate as many obviously incorrect answers as possible. If a question has four choices and you randomly select one, you have a 25% chance of being correct. However, if you can narrow down your choices to just two answers, the likelihood of selecting a correct answer increases to 50%.

Can your test be rescored?

The numbers you see on your score report are considered official. However, if your score is much lower than you think it should be, you can request a rescoring of your answer sheet. If you’re unhappy with your score, you may want to consider retaking the SAT.

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