easy SAT

Scores for the August 2019 SAT have been released, and high-scoring students are not happy with the math section's unforgiving curve. They're concerned that they will not compare as favorably to those who have taken other SATs, even though they may have gotten the same number of questions right. Situations like this one are a good reminder that no two SATs are exactly alike, and that you might not want an "easy" SAT.

As it turns out, an easier test is no good for students or for colleges using test scores to evaluate applicants. To explain why, we need to discuss one of the fundamental aspects of standardized tests: equating.

How Does the SAT Curve Work?

For a standardized test to be of any value, it needs to be possible to compare the scores of someone who took the test in June 2019 to someone who took it in March 2019, June 2018, October 2017, etc. The College Board cannot just give the same test at each administration, and it’s really hard to make each test exactly as hard as every other test. As a result, test makers need to adjust the scaled score, which is based on the raw number of correct answers, on each test to make sure they’re comparable. Learn how the SAT is scored.

When the August 2019 SAT scores came out, students took to Reddit to decry the Math curve for the exam. Students who got fewer questions wrong on the August test than on previous attempts woke up to lower Math scores.

Difficulty, to be sure, is in the eye of the beholder. Some, or perhaps most, students were bound to find the August Math sections to be difficult. When we call the Math section “easy” we do not mean that everyone should have found it so. We mean that the scoring curve indicates, objectively, that students tended to get fewer questions wrong than they did on other SATs. That made the curve less forgiving.

Score equating is done before the test is ever given, so it’s worth saying that the actual performances on test day did not affect the curve. The College Board knew it was going to administer an easier test, which meant more students would get more questions right, and the scale would need to undergo adjustment. As a result, small differences had a larger impact than usual.

To a degree, this is how it should be. A student who misses two questions on an easier test should not get as good a score as a student who misses two questions on a hard test. Equating takes care of that issue.

Why Easy SATs Can Hurt High-Scorers

1. It's Tough for Colleges to Evaluate Their Scores

The equating applied to the August 2019 SAT suggests that the College Board made the test far too easy to distinguish among high scorers who received a score of 650 (86th percentile) or higher. That is a problem for those colleges who treat a 650, a 700, a 750, and an 800 as accurate indicators of real differences in Math ability.

2. No Room for Errors

It is a problem, too, for high-scoring students who make an occasional careless error, like improperly calculating a result or misbubbling their answer for a question they’ve otherwise correctly solved. With a typical curve, there’s some cushion to mitigate the impact of such errors. There was no cushion on the August 2019 SAT, and the last time this happened was on the June 2018 SAT.

It might be argued that accomplished students shouldn’t make those kinds of errors, but is that true? It’s more accurate to say that accomplished test takers don’t make those kinds of errors (that's why we at The Princeton Review spend so much time focusing on modeling successful test-taking strategies). Small mistakes under time pressure can make a big difference in life, no doubt—but doing well in college tends to be about doing well over time, with the possibility to revise, rethink, and do better.    

Next Steps: Should You Retake the SAT?

The students shocked by the August 2019 SAT will have a couple more chances to retake the test. View upcoming SAT test dates. But what if the same thing happens in October or November, when seniors often take their last shot at the exam? This is why we recommend taking the SAT as soon as you feel prepared, so that you leave yourself leeway to retake it, especially in the case of something outside of your control like a too-easy administration. Furthermore, most colleges either take your best score or superscore your results, so allowing enough time to take the SAT at least twice can only help your chances at admission. (In fact, at the most competitive schools, most students have taken the SAT or ACT at least twice!) That said, you should know that there have been roughly ten different SATs (including US, international, and School Day administrations) between the last time this occurred in June 2018 and this August 2019 occurrence. As always, we at The Princeton Review will follow these changes and provide the most up-to-date information available.    

Based on how the College Board has responded to instances like this in the past, as with the June 2018 test, it is highly unlikely that the College Board would rescale the exam. It is important to note that college admissions officers are not going to weigh how how many questions a student got wrong. They will look at the scores. Nor will they discount an August 2019 SAT score as somehow compromised. Students who did well on the August 2019 exam should be proud and not worry at all about admissions officers giving it any less weight.    


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