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SAT Curve vs. Equating

In high school, and even in college, you will take some classes where assignments and exams are graded on a curve.

This means that grades are adjusted in some fashion in order for teachers and professors to create a proper distribution of grades.

On an ideal exam, for instance, the grades would form a bell curve with most of the test scores forming the mean or middle of the bell curve and a few test scores serving as outliers. Most students receive a “B” or a “C,” while only a few students receive an “A” or an “F.”

However, test and assignment grades do not always follow a bell curve. 

For example, a teacher might give a test that was much more difficult for students than anticipated, and the majority of students could earn an “F.” If almost every student fails an exam and no one earns an “A,” that is a good sign that the test was maybe unfair or too difficult for students based on the material covered in class.

Likewise, a teacher may give a test where most students earn an “A.” In this case, the outlier students who earn a “D” or an “F” likely did not do so because the test was too difficult.

When there is not a normal distribution of grades, teachers and professors can adjust grades to fit a curve and account for how much more difficult or how much easier the test was than they anticipated.

These adjustments can be made in one of a few ways:

  • Adding points. With this method, the teacher adds the same number of points to each student’s results. This is most common when a teacher realizes that almost every student missed a particular question or two, and they feel like those questions were unfair.
  • 100% grade bump. With this method, the teacher takes the highest grade from the exam or assignment and makes that the new perfect score. If Student X earns the highest grade on a test with 90% (A-) and Student Y earns the next highest grade with 84% (B), their grades will shift so that Student X now has 100% (A+) and Student Y has a 93% (A).

With either method, your grade is not necessarily based on what you earned on a test, but rather based on how you performed in relation to other students. Ultimately, your grade will be adjusted, for better or for worse, based on the performance of others.

While there are people who advocate for grading curves as well as those who strongly oppose this grading method, it is still popular in high schools, colleges, and universities across the nation. 

The popularity of the bell curve grading system, coupled with the idea of percentiles and the SAT scoring system, has led many to wonder whether the SAT is graded on a curve.

The answer is no. The SAT is not graded on a curve. 

Here is some information about SAT percentiles and scoring methods that will help you see how your score is graded.

SAT percentiles

If you’ve started preparing to take the SAT, you’ve likely heard of SAT percentile scores. Teachers, tutors, and SAT prep instructors make it clear that if you want to get into a top college or university, you need to earn an SAT score in the top percentile.

Your percentile score, like a curved grade, is based on how well you do in relation to other people who took the SAT.

If you scored 1560, but (while highly unlikely) everyone else who took the SAT scored 1560 or below, you would be in the 99th percentile, meaning you scored as high as or higher than 99% of people who took the test.

Colleges and universities like to use percentile scores because they are ranking applicants based on how they stack up against other applicants. If everyone suddenly starts getting 1560 on the SAT, for example, then 1560 is no longer a great score that makes an application stand out. However, if most people are getting 1560 or less, but you earn a score between 1570 and 1600, then you are likely a stronger candidate and your application will be more impressive to college admissions officers.

Because percentile scores carry so much weight at different colleges and universities, some people wonder if the SAT is curved. However, it is important to note that just because many institutions value percentile scores does not mean that your SAT score is assigned based on how it compares to other students’ scores.

Your SAT score is your own. The score you earn determines which percentile you fall into, not the other way around.

So while you should aim to earn a score that will fall into a top percentile, you should know that a percentile will never increase or decrease your score.

SAT equating

While it might now be clear that SAT percentile scores are not the same as grading the SAT on a curve, that doesn’t clear up the other misconception that causes people to believe that the SAT is curved: SAT equating.

Say you take the SAT in September and you get 51 out of the 58 math questions correct for a total SAT Math score of 550. Then, you take the test in December, and you get 52 out of the 58 math questions right. You would expect to have a higher SAT Math score, right? Well, that might not necessarily be the case. You might only get a total SAT Math score of 540, even though you answered more questions correctly the second time around.

Is this because the test was graded on a curve, and your score was lowered because other students scored higher than you did in the math section?

Absolutely not.

The SAT uses a scoring method called “equating” to help make sure that their tests are fair without using other scores to create a curve. Equating is a common, tried and true, statistical practice that is used for many standardized tests.

It ensures that SAT scoring is fair regardless of when people take the test by adjusting scores based on the test difficulty. If the December test was harder than the September test, but no score adjustments were made, then everyone who took the test in December was at a disadvantage. Equating helps eliminate unfair advantages and disadvantages by adjusting scores accordingly.

While this might seem similar to grading on a curve, it is not the same practice. 

When your test is graded on a curve, your SAT score will change based on how everyone else performs on the test. If people do exceptionally well, your score would go down. If people did very poorly, your score would increase.

Your SAT score is not calculated based on the performance of others. It is based only on how you perform. While it is adjusted to account for test difficulty, everyone’s test is adjusted exactly the same. Furthermore, even if every single person (again, incredibly unlikely) got a perfect score on the SAT, the score you earned would not be lowered because you did not get a perfect score.

Now that you understand the scoring methods used by the SAT and you realize that your performance is solely your own, it is up to you to do everything possible to help improve your performance.

Prep Expert offers SAT prep courses and private SAT tutoring that can help you earn a great score on the SAT. Enroll today when you visit our website. Digital SAT may also interest you so read our article if you want to learn more.

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