Does the SAT Curve Really Exist? How the Scoring Actually Works

SAT Test Scoring Process - Magoosh

We’ve all been there: the teacher announces that your super-difficult test was (drumroll, please…) graded on a curve! And so, when students start studying for the SAT, they often ask: Is the SAT curved? However, the SAT is never graded on a curve—and this is actually good news for test-takers!

What Does It Mean to Grade on a Curve?

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “grading on a curve.” When teachers mark exams on a curve, this means that they take the scores everyone got and place them on a bell curve. Highest-scoring students receive an A, most students receive Bs, Cs, and Ds, and lowest-scoring students fail.

An important part of being graded on a curve is that your grade depends a lot on how other test-takers performed. You could score 17 points out of 100 and get an A if nobody scored higher. On the other hand, you could score 97 points out of 100 and get an F if nobody scored lower.

So let’s clear this up right now: grading on a curve isn’t necessarily good or bad. While it often benefits students taking really hard classes, it completely depends on the situation.

How Is the SAT Graded?

On test day, you’ll encounter several sections on the SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (broken down into Reading and Writing sections), Math, and (if you signed up for it) the essay.

When scoring your exam, the College Board counts each question you got right in each multiple-choice subject as one point. You don’t lose points for wrong answers (though test-takers used to, this is no longer the policy). The maximum scores in each subject are 52 in Reading, 44 in Writing, and 58 in Math. Because the essay isn’t multiple-choice, it’s graded differently.

Then, these raw scores are converted into two scaled scores: one for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and one for Math. These are the familiar 200-800 point scales within each section, combined to a total of 400-1600 points overall.

Forget the SAT Curve—It’s All About Equating

As you can see, the myth of the SAT curve is a misconception about the scoring process. However, there is a process known as “SAT equating” that can affect your score.

SAT equating comes into play when the College Board translates the scores from a given test from raw to scaled.

The College Board’s goal is to have an average score of 500 in each section, for an overall composite score of 1000 (easy to remember, right?). However, because the average score depends on how test-takers performed, they need to adjust the raw-to-scaled calculation to accommodate this and ensure a standard deviation of 100 points per section.

Isn’t this the same thing as grading on a curve? It actually isn’t, and the College Board has a pretty good explanation of why.

The tl;dr version is that equating doesn’t grade you based on other people’s performances—it only ensures that the relative difficulty of different tests is reflected in the scores. In other words, it adjusts the “value” of different questions according to how hard students found them and makes sure that an SAT score from one day means the same thing as an SAT score from another day.

In other words, it wouldn’t matter if everyone who took the SAT on the same day scored a 1500—they would all receive that 1500, and it would be equal to all the 1500s from other test days. Sure, students taking the test on different days may have had to answer more or fewer questions correctly to get that 1500. However, this doesn’t affect fairness because those answering fewer questions to get their 1500 also had to answer harder questions!

A Final Word

As you prep for the SAT, it’s important to understand the test’s scoring in order to target your strengths and your weaknesses. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether the SAT is curved or not (and again, it’s not!). All that matters is that you show up as prepared as possible and do the best that you can! And now you can do that knowing the test is graded fairly. Your score won’t change depending on how well other test-takers do—only on how well you do!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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