How does the SAT curve work

December 11, 2019

What’s a curve and how does the SAT “curve” work?

Your high school teachers may “curve” a test when the whole class does poorly.  Maybe the highest grade was an 88%, so she adds 12% to every students grade so that way the highest grade is now 100% and everyone’s score is a bit higher.  In college, some professors move away from this type of curve and utilize statistics in the way they curve their courses. Many college classes are graded on a curve, so that your grades are compared against the median grade, and perhaps the median grade is curved to a B or B+. The SAT is graded similarly to the way these college glasses are “curved.”

Despite the extensive quality-control testing the College Board performs, the “difficulty level” of each SAT varies. We’ve written on this before— some SAT/ACTS are, in fact, easier than others.  In order to deal with this variation, the College Board tweaks the way it scores the test, using a different rubric and scaling each time. This process is called SAT score curving. 

The Bell Curve 

The SAT curve is meant to be a bell curve, or a perfect distribution. The College Board wants to ensure that most people score in the middle and very few people are score on the higher and lower ends.  Ultimately, how the curve matches up to percentiles varies slightly from test to test. However, your scaled score (200-800 on each section) will correspond more or less with the same percentile, allowing for scores from different tests to be compared directly.

Because of the curve and varying difficulty of different SAT administrations, a certain number of correct answers isn’t going to correspond to a certain score.  For this reason, scores can sometimes be difficult to predict. Some tests, deemed “easier” by the CollegeBoard will have very unforgiving curves— a few wrong questions might result in a much lower score than expected.

So why does this matter to me?

It matters because not all SATs are created equal.  There is no way to predict if you’ll get a harder or easier test and there’s no way to predict exactly what your score will be based on the number of questions you get right or wrong.  For this reason, you should always plan to take the test more than once. You should always approach every test knowing some might feel more challenging, and that’s okay. Not every test will allow you to reach your score potential, but taking the test multiple times will allow you to show your abilities on a variety of curves. 

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