Sat Essay Test Rewards Length And Ignores Errors

This article is about the college admission test in the United States. For the exams in England colloquially known as SATs, see National Curriculum assessment.

For other uses, see SAT (disambiguation).

TypePaper-based standardized test
Developer / administratorCollege Board, Educational Testing Service.
Knowledge / skills testedWriting, critical reading, mathematics.
PurposeAdmission to undergraduate programs of universities or colleges.
Year started1926 (1926)
Duration3 to 4 hours
Score / grade range200–800 (in 10-point increments) on each of two sections (total 400–1600).
Essay scored on scale of 2–8, in 1-point increments.
OfferedSeven times annually
Countries / regionsWorldwide
LanguagesEnglish
Annual number of test takersOver 1.71 million high school graduates in the class of 2017[1]
Prerequisites / eligibility criteriaNo official prerequisite. Intended for high school students. Fluency in English assumed.
FeeUS$52.50 to US$101.50, depending on country.[2]
Scores / grades used byMost universities and colleges offering undergraduate programs in the U.S.
Websitesat.collegeboard.org

The SAT (es-ay-TEE) is a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States. Introduced in 1926, its name and scoring have changed several times; originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, it was later called the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT I: Reasoning Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now, simply the SAT.

The SAT is owned, developed, and published by the College Board, a private, non-profit organization in the United States. It is administered on behalf of the College Board by the Educational Testing Service,[3] which until recently developed the SAT as well.[4] The test is intended to assess students' readiness for college. The SAT was originally designed to not be aligned with high school curricula,[5] but several adjustments were made for the version of the SAT introduced in 2016, and College Board president, David Coleman, has said that he also wanted to make the test reflect more closely what students learned in high school.[6]

On March 5, 2014, the College Board announced that a redesigned version of the SAT would be administered for the first time in 2016.[7] The current SAT, introduced in 2016, takes three hours to finish, plus 50 minutes for the SAT with essay, and as of 2017[update] costs US$45 (US$57 with the optional essay), excluding late fees, with additional processing fees if the SAT is taken outside the United States.[8] Scores on the SAT range from 400 to 1600, combining test results from two 800-point sections: mathematics, and critical reading and writing. Taking the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT, is required for freshman entry to many, but not all, colleges and universities in the United States.[9] Starting with the 2015–16 school year, the College Board also announced it would team up with Khan Academy, a free, online education site to provide SAT prep, free of charge.[10]

Function[edit]

The SAT is typically taken by high schooljuniors and seniors.[11] The College Board states that the SAT measures literacy, numeracy and writing skills that are needed for academic success in college. They state that the SAT assesses how well the test takers analyze and solve problems—skills they learned in school that they will need in college. However, the test is administered under a tight time limit (speeded) to help produce a range of scores.[12]

The College Board also states that use of the SAT in combination with high school grade point average (GPA) provides a better indicator of success in college than high school grades alone, as measured by college freshman GPA. Various studies conducted over the lifetime of the SAT show a statistically significant increase in correlation of high school grades and college freshman grades when the SAT is factored in.[13] A large independent validity study on the SAT's ability to predict college freshman GPA was performed by the University of California. The results of this study found how well various predictor variables could explain the variance in college freshman GPA. It found that independently high school GPA could explain 15.4% of the variance in college freshman GPA, SAT I (the SAT Math and Verbal sections) could explain 13.3% of the variance in college freshman GPA, and SAT II (also known as the SAT subject tests; in the UC's case specifically Writing, Mathematics IC or IIC, plus a third subject test of the student's choice) could explain 16% of the variance in college freshman GPA. When high school GPA and the SAT I were combined, they explained 20.8% of the variance in college freshman GPA. When high school GPA and the SAT II were combined, they explained 22.2% of the variance in college freshman GPA. When SAT I was added to the combination of high school GPA and SAT II, it added a .1 percentage point increase in explaining the variance in college freshman GPA for a total of 22.3%.[14]

There are substantial differences in funding, curricula, grading, and difficulty among U.S. secondary schools due to U.S. federalism, local control, and the prevalence of private, distance, and home schooled students. SAT (and ACT) scores are intended to supplement the secondary school record and help admission officers put local data—such as course work, grades, and class rank—in a national perspective.[15] However, independent research has shown that high school GPA is better than the SAT at predicting college grades regardless of high school type or quality.[16]

Historically, the SAT was more widely used by students living in coastal states and the ACT was more widely used by students in the Midwest and South; in recent years, however, an increasing number of students on the East and West coasts have been taking the ACT.[17][18] Since 2007, all four-year colleges and universities in the United States that require a test as part of an application for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT, and over 950 four-year colleges and universities do not require any standardized test scores at all for admission.[19][20]

Structure[edit]

The SAT has four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (no calculator), and Math (calculator allowed). The test taker may optionally write an essay which, in that case, is the fifth test section. The total time for the scored portion of the SAT is three hours (or three hours and fifty minutes if the optional essay section is taken). Some test takers who are not taking the essay may also have a fifth section which is used, at least in part, for the pretesting of questions that may appear on future administrations of the SAT. (These questions are not included in the computation of the SAT score.) Two section scores result from taking the SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. Section scores are reported on a scale of 200 to 800, and each section score is a multiple of ten. A total score for the SAT is calculated by adding the two section scores, resulting in total scores that range from 400 to 1600. There is no penalty for guessing on the SAT: scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly. In addition to the two section scores, three "test" scores on a scale of 10 to 40 are reported, one for each of Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The essay, if taken, is scored separately from the two section scores.[21]

Reading Test[edit]

The Reading Test of the SAT is made up of one section with 52 questions and a time limit of 65 minutes.[21] All questions are multiple-choice and based on reading passages. Tables, graphs, and charts may accompany some passages, but no math is required to correctly answer the corresponding questions. There are five passages (up to two of which may be a pair of smaller passages) on the Reading Test and 10-11 questions per passage or passage pair. SAT Reading passages draw from three main fields: history, social studies, and science. Each SAT Reading Test always includes: one passage from U.S. or world literature; one passage from either a U.S. founding document or a related text; one passage about economics, psychology, sociology, or another social science; and, two science passages. Answers to all of the questions are based only on the content stated in or implied by the passage or passage pair.[22]

Writing and Language Test[edit]

The Writing and Language Test of the SAT is made up of one section with 44 multiple-choice questions and a time limit of 35 minutes.[21] As with the Reading Test, all questions are based on reading passages which may be accompanied by tables, graphs, and charts. The test taker will be asked to read the passages, find mistakes or weaknesses in writing, and to provide corrections or improvements. Reading passages on this test range in content from topic arguments to nonfiction narratives in a variety of subjects. The skills being evaluated include: increasing the clarity of argument; improving word choice; improving analysis of topics in social studies and science; changing sentence or word structure to increase organizational quality and impact of writing; and, fixing or improving sentence structure, word usage, and punctuation.[23]

Mathematics[edit]

The mathematics portion of the SAT is divided into two sections: Math Test – Calculator and Math Test – No Calculator. In total, the SAT math test is 80 minutes long and includes 58 questions: 45 multiple choice questions and 13 grid-in questions.[24] The multiple choice questions have four possible answers; the grid-in questions are free response and require the test taker to provide an answer.

  • The Math Test – No Calculator section has 20 questions (15 multiple choice and 5 grid-in) and lasts 25 minutes.
  • The Math Test – Calculator section has 38 questions (30 multiple choice and 8 grid-in) and lasts 55 minutes.

Several scores are provided to the test taker for the math test. A subscore (on a scale of 1 to 15) is reported for each of three categories of math content: "Heart of Algebra" (linear equations, systems of linear equations, and linear functions), "Problem Solving and Data Analysis" (statistics, modeling, and problem-solving skills), and "Passport to Advanced Math" (non-linear expressions, radicals, exponentials and other topics that form the basis of more advanced math). A test score for the math test is reported on a scale of 10 to 40, and a section score (equal to the test score multiplied by 20) is reported on a scale of 200 to 800. [25][26][27]

Calculator use[edit]

All scientific and most graphing calculators, including Computer Algebra System (CAS) calculators, are permitted on the SAT Math – Calculator section only. All four-function calculators are allowed as well; however, these devices are not recommended. All mobile phone and smartphone calculators, calculators with typewriter-like (QWERTY) keyboards, laptops and other portable computers, and calculators capable of accessing the Internet are not permitted.[28]

Research was conducted by the College Board to study the effect of calculator use on SAT I: Reasoning Test math scores. The study found that performance on the math section was associated with the extent of calculator use: those using calculators on about one third to one half of the items averaged higher scores than those using calculators more or less frequently. However, the effect was "more likely to have been the result of able students using calculators differently than less able students rather than calculator use per se."[29] There is some evidence that the frequent use of a calculator in school outside of the testing situation has a positive effect on test performance compared to those who do not use calculators in school.[30]

Style of questions[edit]

Most of the questions on the SAT, except for the optional essay and the grid-in math responses, are multiple choice; all multiple-choice questions have four answer choices, one of which is correct. Thirteen of the questions on the math portion of the SAT (about 22% of all the math questions) are not multiple choice.[31] They instead require the test taker to bubble in a number in a four-column grid.

All questions on each section of the SAT are weighted equally. For each correct answer, one raw point is added.[32] No points are deducted for incorrect answers. The final score is derived from the raw score; the precise conversion chart varies between test administrations.

Logistics[edit]

The SAT is offered seven times a year in the United States: in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. The test is typically offered on the first Saturday of the month for the October, November, December, May, and June administrations.[33] In other countries, the SAT is offered four times a year: in October, December, March, and May.[34] The test was taken by 1,715,481 high school graduates in the class of 2017.[1]

Candidates wishing to take the test may register online at the College Board's website, by mail, or by telephone, at least three weeks before the test date.

The SAT costs $45 ($57 with the optional essay), plus additional fees if testing outside the United States) as of 2017[update].[8] The College Board makes fee waivers available for low income students. Additional fees apply for late registration, standby testing, registration changes, scores by telephone, and extra score reports (beyond the four provided for free).

Candidates whose religious beliefs prevent them from taking the test on a Saturday may request to take the test on the following day, except for the October test date in which the Sunday test date is eight days after the main test offering. Such requests must be made at the time of registration and are subject to denial.

Students with verifiable disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities, are eligible to take the SAT with accommodations. The standard time increase for students requiring additional time due to learning disabilities or physical handicaps is time + 50%; time + 100% is also offered.

Raw scores, scaled scores, and percentiles[edit]

Students receive their online score reports approximately three weeks after test administration (six weeks for mailed, paper scores), with each section graded on a scale of 200–800 and two sub scores for the writing section: the essay score and the multiple choice sub score. In addition to their score, students receive their percentile (the percentage of other test takers with lower scores). The raw score, or the number of points gained from correct answers and lost from incorrect answers is also included.[35] Students may also receive, for an additional fee, the Question and Answer Service, which provides the student's answer, the correct answer to each question, and online resources explaining each question.

The corresponding percentile of each scaled score varies from test to test—for example, in 2003, a scaled score of 800 in both sections of the SAT Reasoning Test corresponded to a percentile of 99.9, while a scaled score of 800 in the SAT Physics Test corresponded to the 94th percentile. The differences in what scores mean with regard to percentiles are due to the content of the exam and the caliber of students choosing to take each exam. Subject Tests are subject to intensive study (often in the form of an AP, which is relatively more difficult), and only those who know they will perform well tend to take these tests, creating a skewed distribution of scores.

The percentiles that various SAT scores for college-bound seniors correspond to are summarized in the following chart:[36][37]

PercentileScore, 1600 Scale
(official, 2006)
Score, 2400 Scale
(official, 2006)
99.93/99.98*16002400
99+ **≥1540≥2280
99≥1480≥2200
98≥1450≥2140
97≥1420≥2100
93≥1340≥1990
88≥1280≥1900
81≥1220≥1800
72≥1150≥1700
61≥1090≥1600
48≥1010≥1500
36≥950≥1400
24≥870≥1300
15≥810≥1200
8≥730≥1090
4≥650≥990
2≥590≥890
* The percentile of the perfect score was 99.98 on the 2400 scale and 99.93 on the 1600 scale.
** 99+ means better than 99.5 percent of test takers.

The older SAT (before 1995) had a very high ceiling. In any given year, only seven of the million test-takers scored above 1580. A score above 1580 was equivalent to the 99.9995 percentile.[38]

In 2015 the average score for the Class of 2015 was 1490 out of a maximum 2400. That was down 7 points from the previous class’s mark and was the lowest composite score of the past decade.[39]

SAT-ACT score comparisons[edit]

The College Board and ACT, Inc. conducted a joint study of students who took both the SAT and the ACT between September 2004 (for the ACT) or March 2005 (for the SAT) and June 2006. Tables were provided to concord scores for students taking the SAT after January 2005 and before March 2016. [40][41]

In May, 2016, the College Board released concordance tables to concord scores on the SAT used from March 2005 through January 2016 to the SAT used since March 2016, as well as tables to concord scores on the SAT used since March 2016 to the ACT.[42]

History[edit]

Year of
exam
Reading
/Verbal
Score
Math
Score
1972530509
1973523506
1974521505
1975512498
1976509497
1977507496
1978507494
1979505493
1980502492
1981502492
1982504493
1983503494
1984504497
1985509500
1986509500
1987507501
1988505501
1989504502
1990500501
1991499500
1992500501
1993500503
1994499504
1995504506
1996505508
1997505511
1998505512
1999505511
2000505514
2001506514
2002504516
2003507519
2004508518
2005508520
2006503518
2007502515
2008502515
2009501515
2010501516
2011497514
2012496514
2013496514
2014497513
2015495511
2016494508
2017533527

Many college entrance exams in the early 1900s were specific to each school and required candidates to travel to the school to take the tests. The College Board, a consortium of colleges in the northeastern United States, was formed in 1900 to establish a nationally administered, uniform set of essay tests based on the curricula of the boarding schools that typically provided graduates to the colleges of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters, among others.[44][45]

In the same time period, Lewis Terman and others began to promote the use of tests such as Alfred Binet's in American schools. Terman in particular thought that such tests could identify an innate "intelligence quotient" (IQ) in a person. The results of an IQ test could then be used to find an elite group of students who would be given the chance to finish high school and go on to college.[44] By the mid-1920s, the increasing use of IQ tests, such as the Army Alpha test administered to recruits in World War I, led the College Board to commission the development of the SAT. The commission, headed by Carl Brigham, argued that the test predicted success in higher education by identifying candidates primarily on the basis of intellectual promise rather than on specific accomplishment in high school subjects.[45] In 1934, James Conant and Henry Chauncey used the SAT as a means to identify recipients for scholarships to Harvard University. Specifically, Conant wanted to find students, other than those from the traditional northeastern private schools, that could do well at Harvard. The success of the scholarship program and the advent of World War II led to the end of the College Board essay exams and to the SAT being used as the only admissions test for College Board member colleges.[44]

The SAT rose in prominence after World War II due to several factors. Machine-based scoring of multiple-choice tests taken by pencil had made it possible to rapidly process the exams.[46] The G.I. Bill produced an influx of millions of veterans into higher education.[46][47] The formation of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) also played a significant role in the expansion of the SAT beyond the roughly fifty colleges that made up the College Board at the time.[48] The ETS was formed in 1947 by the College Board, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the American Council on Education, to consolidate respectively the operations of the SAT, the GRE, and the achievement tests developed by Ben Wood for use with Conant's scholarship exams.[46] The new organization was to be philosophically grounded in the concepts of open-minded, scientific research in testing with no doctrine to sell and with an eye toward public service.[49] The ETS was chartered after the death of Brigham, who had opposed the creation of such an entity. Brigham felt that the interests of a consolidated testing agency would be more aligned with sales or marketing than with research into the science of testing.[46] It has been argued that the interest of the ETS in expanding the SAT in order to support its operations aligned with the desire of public college and university faculties to have smaller, diversified, and more academic student bodies as a means to increase research activities.[44] In 1951, about 80,000 SATs were taken; in 1961, about 800,000; and by 1971, about 1.5 million SATs were being taken each year.[50]

A timeline of notable events in the history of the SAT follows.

1901 essay exams[edit]

On June 17, 1901, the first exams of the College Board were administered to 973 students across 67 locations in the United States, and two in Europe. Although those taking the test came from a variety of backgrounds, approximately one third were from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania. The majority of those taking the test were from private schools, academies, or endowed schools. About 60% of those taking the test applied to Columbia University. The test contained sections on English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The test was not multiple choice, but instead was evaluated based on essay responses as "excellent", "good", "doubtful", "poor" or "very poor".[51]

1926 test[edit]

The first administration of the SAT occurred on June 23, 1926, when it was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.[52][53] This test, prepared by a committee headed by Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham, had sections of definitions, arithmetic, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and paragraph reading. It was administered to over 8,000 students at over 300 test centers. Men composed 60% of the test-takers. Slightly over a quarter of males and females applied to Yale University and Smith College.[53] The test was paced rather quickly, test-takers being given only a little over 90 minutes to answer 315 questions.[52] The raw score of each participating student was converted to a score scale with a mean of 500 and a standard deviation of 100. This scale was effectively equivalent to a 200 to 800 scale, although students could score more than 800 and less than 200.[46]

1928 and 1929 tests[edit]

In 1928, the number of sections on the SAT was reduced to seven, and the time limit was increased to slightly under two hours. In 1929, the number of sections was again reduced, this time to six. These changes were designed in part to give test-takers more time per question. For these two years, all of the sections tested verbal ability: math was eliminated entirely from the SAT.[52]

1930 test and 1936 changes[edit]

In 1930 the SAT was first split into the verbal and math sections, a structure that would continue through 2004. The verbal section of the 1930 test covered a more narrow range of content than its predecessors, examining only antonyms, double definitions (somewhat similar to sentence completions), and paragraph reading. In 1936, analogies were re-added. Between 1936 and 1946, students had between 80 and 115 minutes to answer 250 verbal questions (over a third of which were on antonyms). The mathematics test introduced in 1930 contained 100 free response questions to be answered in 80 minutes, and focused primarily on speed. From 1936 to 1941, like the 1928 and 1929 tests, the mathematics section was eliminated entirely. When the mathematics portion of the test was re-added in 1942, it consisted of multiple choice questions.[52]

1941 and 1942 score scales[edit]

Until 1941, the scores on all SATs had been scaled to a mean of 500 with a standard deviation of 100. Although one test-taker could be compared to another for a given test date, comparisons from one year to another could not be made. For example, a score of 500 achieved on an SAT taken in one year could reflect a different ability level than a score of 500 achieved in another year. By 1940, it had become clear that setting the mean SAT score to 500 every year was unfair to those students who happened to take the SAT with a group of higher average ability.[54]

In order to make cross-year score comparisons possible, in April 1941 the SAT verbal section was scaled to a mean of 500, and a standard deviation of 100, and the June 1941 SAT verbal section was equated (linked) to the April 1941 test. All SAT verbal sections after 1941 were equated to previous tests so that the same scores on different SATs would be comparable. Similarly, in June 1942 the SAT math section was equated to the April 1942 math section, which itself was linked to the 1942 SAT verbal section, and all SAT math sections after 1942 would be equated to previous tests. From this point forward, SAT mean scores could change over time, depending on the average ability of the group taking the test compared to the roughly 10,600 students taking the SAT in April 1941. The 1941 and 1942 score scales would remain in use until 1995. [54][55]

1946 test and associated changes[edit]

Paragraph reading was eliminated from the verbal portion of the SAT in 1946, and replaced with reading comprehension, and "double definition" questions were replaced with sentence completions. Between 1946 and 1957 students were given 90 to 100 minutes to complete 107 to 170 verbal questions. Starting in 1958 time limits became more stable, and for 17 years, until 1975, students had 75 minutes to answer 90 questions. In 1959 questions on data sufficiency were introduced to the mathematics section, and then replaced with quantitative comparisons in 1974. In 1974 both verbal and math sections were reduced from 75 minutes to 60 minutes each, with changes in test composition compensating for the decreased time.[52]

1960s and 1970s score declines[edit]

From 1926 to 1941, scores on the SAT were scaled to make 500 the mean score on each section. In 1941 and 1942, SAT scores were standardized via test equating, and as a consequence, average verbal and math scores could vary from that time forward.[54] In 1952, mean verbal and math scores were 476 and 494, respectively, and scores were generally stable in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, starting in the mid-1960s and continuing until the early 1980s, SAT scores declined: the average verbal score dropped by about 50 points, and the average math score fell by about 30 points. By the late 1970s, only the upper third of test takers were doing as well as the upper half of those taking the SAT in 1963. From 1961 to 1977, the number of SATs taken per year doubled, suggesting that the decline could be explained by demographic changes in the group of students taking the SAT. Commissioned by the College Board, an independent study of the decline found that most (up to about 75%) of the test decline in the 1960s could be explained by compositional changes in the group of students taking the test; however, only about 25 percent of the 1970s decrease in test scores could similarly be explained.[50] Later analyses suggested that up to 40 percent of the 1970s decline in scores could be explained by demographic changes, leaving unknown at least some of the reasons for the decline.[56]

1994 changes[edit]

In early 1994, substantial changes were made to the SAT.[57] Antonyms were removed from the verbal section in order to make rote memorization of vocabulary less useful. Also, the fraction of verbal questions devoted to passage-based reading material was increased from about 30% to about 50%, and the passages were chosen to be more like typical college-level reading material, compared to previous SAT reading passages. The changes for increased emphasis on analytical reading were made in response to a 1990 report issued by a commission established by the College Board. The commission recommended that the SAT should, among other things, "approximate more closely the skills used in college and high school work".[52] A mandatory essay had been considered as well for the new version of the SAT; however, criticism from minority groups as well as a concomitant increase in the cost of the test necessary to grade the essay led the College Board to drop it from the planned changes.[58]

Major changes were also made to the SAT mathematics section at this time, due in part to the influence of suggestions made by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Test-takers were now permitted to use calculators on the math sections of the SAT. Also, for the first time since 1935, the SAT would now include some math questions that were not multiple choice, instead requiring students to supply the answers. Additionally, some of these "student-produced response" questions could have more than one correct answer. The tested mathematics content on the SAT was expanded to include concepts of slope of a line, probability, elementary statistics including median and mode, and counting problems.[52]

1995 recentering (raising mean score back to 500)[edit]

By the early 1990s, average total SAT scores were around 900 (typically, 425 on the verbal and 475 on the math). The average scores on the 1994 modification of the SAT I were similar: 428 on the verbal and 482 on the math.[59] SAT scores for admitted applicants to highly selective colleges in the United States were typically much higher. For example, the score ranges of the middle 50% of admitted applicants to Princeton University in 1985 were 600 to 720 (verbal) and 660 to 750 (math).[60] Similarly, median scores on the modified 1994 SAT for freshmen entering Yale University in the fall of 1995 were 670 (verbal) and 720 (math).[61] For the majority of SAT takers, however, verbal and math scores were below 500: In 1992, half of the college-bound seniors taking the SAT were scoring between 340 and 500 on the verbal section and between 380 and 560 on the math section, with corresponding median scores of 420 and 470, respectively.[62]

The drop in SAT verbal scores, in particular, meant that the usefulness of the SAT score scale (200 to 800) had become degraded. At the top end of the verbal scale, significant gaps were occurring between raw scores and uncorrected scaled scores: a perfect raw score no longer corresponded to an 800, and a single omission out of 85 questions could lead to a drop of 30 or 40 points in the scaled score. Corrections to scores above 700 had been necessary to reduce the size of the gaps and to make a perfect raw score result in an 800. At the other end of the scale, about 1.5 percent of test takers would have scored below 200 on the verbal section if that had not been the reported minimum score. Although the math score averages were closer to the center of the scale (500) than the verbal scores, the distribution of math scores was no longer well approximated by a normal distribution. These problems, among others, suggested that the original score scale and its reference group of about 10,000 students taking the SAT in 1941 needed to be replaced.[54]

Beginning with the test administered in April 1995, the SAT score scale was recentered to return the average math and verbal scores close to 500. Although only 25 students had received perfect scores of 1600 in all of 1994, 137 students taking the April test scored a 1600.[63] The new scale used a reference group of about one million seniors in the class of 1990: the scale was designed so that the SAT scores of this cohort would have a mean of 500 and a standard deviation of 110. Because the new scale would not be directly comparable to the old scale, scores awarded on April 1995 and later were officially reported with an "R" (for example, "560R") to reflect the change in scale, a practice that was continued until 2001.[54] Scores awarded before April 1995 may be compared to those on the recentered scale by using official College Board tables. For example, verbal and math scores of 500 received before 1995 correspond to scores of 580 and 520, respectively, on the 1995 scale.[64]

1995 re-centering controversy[edit]

Certain educational organizations viewed the SAT re-centering initiative as an attempt to stave off international embarrassment in regards to continuously declining test scores, even among top students. As evidence, it was presented that the number of pupils who scored above 600 on the verbal portion of the test had fallen from a peak of 112,530 in 1972 to 73,080 in 1993, a 36% backslide, despite the fact that the total number of test-takers had risen over 500,000.[65] Other authors have argued that the evidence for a decline in student quality is mixed, citing that top scorers on the ACT have shown little change in the same period, and that the proportion of 17-year-olds scoring at the highest performance level on the NAEP long-term trend assessment has been roughly stable for decades.[66]

2002 changes – Score Choice[edit]

Since 1993, using a policy referred to as "Score Choice", students taking the SAT-II subject exams were able to choose whether or not to report the resulting scores to a college to which the student was applying. In October 2002, the College Board dropped the Score Choice option for SAT-II exams, matching the score policy for the traditional SAT tests that required students to release all scores to colleges.[67] The College Board said that, under the old score policy, many students who waited to release scores would forget to do so and miss admissions deadlines. It was also suggested that the old policy of allowing students the option of which scores to report favored students who could afford to retake the tests.[68]

2005 changes, including a new 2400-point score[edit]

In 2005, the test was changed again, largely in response to criticism by the University of California system.[69] In order to have the SAT more closely reflect high school curricula, certain types of questions were eliminated: analogies from the verbal section and quantitative comparison items from the math section.[52] A new writing section, with an essay, based on the former SAT II Writing Subject Test, was added,[70] in part to increase the chances of closing the opening gap between the highest and midrange scores. Other factors included the desire to test the writing ability of each student; hence the essay. The essay section added an additional maximum 800 points to the score, which increased the new maximum score to 2400.[71] The "New SAT" was first offered on March 12, 2005, after the last administration of the "old" SAT in January 2005. The mathematics section was expanded to cover three years of high school mathematics. To emphasize the importance of reading, the verbal section's name was changed to the Critical Reading section.[52]

Scoring problems of October 2005 tests[edit]

In March 2006, it was announced that a small percentage of the SATs taken in October 2005 had been scored incorrectly due to the test papers' being moist and not scanning properly, and that some students had received erroneous scores.[72] The College Board announced they would change the scores for the students who were given a lower score than they earned, but at this point many of those students had already applied to colleges using their original scores. The College Board decided not to change the scores for the students who were given a higher score than they earned. A lawsuit was filed in 2006 on behalf of the 4,411 students who received an incorrect score on the SAT.[73] The class-action suit was settled in August 2007 when the College Board and Pearson Educational Measurement, the company that scored the SATs, announced they would pay $2.85 million into a settlement fund. Under the agreement each student could either elect to receive $275 or submit a claim for more money if he or she felt the damage was greater.[74] A similar scoring error occurred on a secondary school admission test in 2010–2011 when the ERB (Educational Records Bureau) announced after the admission process was over that an error had been made in the scoring of the tests of 2010 (17%) of the students who had taken the Independent School Entrance Examination for admission to private secondary schools for 2011. Commenting on the effect of the error on students' school applications in The New York Times, David Clune, President of the ERB stated "It is a lesson we all learn at some point—that life isn't fair."[75]

2008 changes[edit]

As part of an effort to “reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience", in late 2008 the College Board announced that the Score Choice option, recently dropped for SAT subject exams, would be available for both the SAT subject tests and the SAT starting in March, 2009. At the time, some college admissions officials agreed that the new policy would help to alleviate student test anxiety, while others questioned whether the change was primarily an attempt to make the SAT more competitive with the ACT, which had long had a comparable score choice policy.[76] Recognizing that some colleges would want to see the scores from all tests taken by a student, under this new policy, the College Board would encourage but not force students to follow the requirements of each college to which scores would be sent.[77] A number of highly selective colleges and universities, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Stanford, rejected the Score Choice option at the time[78] and continue to require applicants to submit all scores.[79] Others, such as MIT and Harvard, allow students to choose which scores they submit, and use only the highest score from each section when making admission decisions. Still others, such as Oregon State University and University of Iowa, allow students to choose which scores they submit, considering only the test date with the highest combined score when making admission decisions.[79]

2012 changes[edit]

Beginning in 2012, test takers were required to submit a current, recognizable photo during registration. Students are required to present their photo admission ticket – or another acceptable form of photo ID – for admittance to their designated test center. Student scores and registration information, including the photo provided, are made available to the student’s high school. In the event of an investigation involving the validity of a student’s test scores, their photo may be made available to institutions to which they have sent scores. Any college that is granted access to a student’s photo is first required to certify that they are all admitted students.[80]

2016 changes, including the return to a 1600-point score[edit]

On March 5, 2014, the College Board announced its plan to redesign the SAT in order to link the exam more closely to the work high school students encounter in the classroom.[7] The new exam was administered for the first time in March 2016.[81] Some of the major changes are: an emphasis on the use of evidence to support answers, a shift away from obscure vocabulary to words that students are more likely to encounter in college and career, a math section that is focused on fewer areas, a return to the 1600-point score scale, an optional essay, and the removal of penalty for wrong answers (rights-only scoring).[82] To combat the perceived advantage of costly test preparation courses, the College Board announced a new partnership with Khan Academy to offer free online practice problems and instructional videos.[7]

Name changes[edit]

The SAT has been renamed several times since its introduction in 1926. It was originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.[83][52] In 1990, a commission set up by the College Board to review the proposed changes to the SAT program recommended that the meaning of the initialism SAT be changed to "Scholastic Assessment Test" because a "test that integrates measures of achievement as well as developed ability can no longer be accurately described as a test of aptitude".[84][85] In 1993, the College Board changed the name of the test to SAT I: Reasoning Test; at the same time, the name of the Achievement Tests was changed to SAT II: Subject Tests.[83] The Reasoning Test and Subject Tests were to be collectively known as the Scholastic Assessment Tests. According to the president of the College Board at the time, the name change was meant "to correct the impression among some people that the SAT measures something that is innate and impervious to change regardless of effort or instruction."[86] The new SAT debuted in March 1994, and was referred to as the Scholastic Assessment Test by major news organizations.[57][87] However, in 1997, the College Board announced that the SAT could not properly be called the Scholastic Assessment Test, and that the letters SAT did not stand for anything.[88] In 2004, the Roman numeral in SAT I: Reasoning Test was dropped, making SAT Reasoning Test the new name of the SAT.[83]

Math–verbal achievement gap[edit]

Main article: Math–verbal achievement gap

In 2002, Richard Rothstein (education scholar and columnist) wrote in The New York Times that the U.S. math averages on the SAT and ACT continued their decade-long rise over national verbal averages on the tests.[89]

Reuse of old SAT exams[edit]

The College Board has been accused of completely reusing old SAT papers previously given in the United States.[90] The recycling of questions from previous exams has been exploited to allow for cheating on exams and impugned the validity of some students' test scores, according to college officials. Test preparation companies in Asia have been found to provide test questions to students within hours of a new SAT exam's administration.[91][92]

Perception[edit]

Association with culture[edit]

For decades many critics have accused designers of the verbal SAT of cultural bias as an explanation for the disparity in scores between poorer and wealthier test-takers.[93] A famous (and long past) example of this bias in the SAT I was the oarsman–regatta analogy question. The object of the question was to find the pair of terms that had the relationship most similar to the relationship between "runner" and "marathon". The correct answer was "oarsman" and "regatta". The choice of the correct answer was thought to have presupposed students' familiarity with rowing, a sport popular with the wealthy. However, according to Murray and Herrnstein, the black-white gap is smaller in culture-loaded questions like this one than in questions that appear to be culturally neutral.[94] Analogy questions have since been replaced by short reading passages.

Association with family income[edit]

A report from The New York Times stated that family income can explain about 95% of the variance in SAT scores.[95] In response, Lisa Wade, contributor at the website The Society Pages, commented that those with higher family income, “tend to have better teachers, more resource-rich educational environments, more educated parents who can help them with school and, sometimes, expensive SAT tutoring.”[96] However, University of California system research found that after controlling for family income and parental education, the already low ability of the SAT to measure aptitude and college readiness fell sharply while the more substantial aptitude and college readiness measuring abilities of high school GPA and the SAT II each remained undiminished (and even slightly increased). The University of California system required both the SAT and the SAT II from applicants to the UC system during the four years included in the study. They further found that, after controlling for family income and parental education, the so-called achievement tests known as the SAT II measure aptitude and college readiness 10 times higher than the SAT.[97] As with racial bias, correlation with income could also be due to the social class of the makers of the test, although according to the authors of The Bell Curve, empirical research suggests that poorer students actually perform worse on questions the authors believed to be "neutral" compared to the ones they termed as "privileged."[98]

Association with gender[edit]

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it.(September 2015)

The largest association with gender on the SAT is found in the math section, where male students, on average, score higher than female students by approximately 30 points.[99] In 2013, the American College Testing Board released a report stating that boys outperformed girls on the mathematics section of the test.[100]

Association with race and ethnicity[edit]

African American, Hispanic, and Native American students, on average, perform an order of one standard deviation lower on the SAT than white and Asian students.[101][102][103]

This map of the United States shows the states in which (blue color) more seniors in the class of 2006 took the SAT than the ACT, and the states in which (red color) more seniors took the ACT than the SAT.
This map of the United States shows the states in which (blue color) more seniors in the class of 2017 took the SAT than the ACT, and the states in which (red color) more seniors took the ACT than the SAT.
An example of an SAT "grid-in" math question and the correctly gridded answer.
Historical average SAT scores of college-bound seniors.

SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.

Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?

No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.

How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?

On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.

With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.


Readers avoid extremes

What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.

What is a good SAT Essay score?

By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.


We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.

College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.

The role of luck

What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?

Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.

What do colleges expect?

It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].

Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.

How will colleges use the domain scores?

Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.

How low is too low?

Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.

Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?

For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.

The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.

Should I skip the essay entirely?

A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.

Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?

Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.

Will I be able to see my essay?

Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.

Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?

Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.

Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?

Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.

Key links in this post:

ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests

 

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